A federal oceanic agency has declared the waters off South Carolina’s entire coast to be “critical habitat” for the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
The move means any entities — from fishing boats to energy companies — seeking to get federal permits for work in the areas within roughly 30 miles of the coast will need to take additional steps to avoid impacting the habitat.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said extensive surveys and other studies found the endangered whales spend winter much further north than previously realized. That led them to expand the 1994 habitat designated area from 1,611 square nautical miles mainly off north Florida and south Georgia to now include more than 8,400 square nautical miles that includes the entire coasts of Georgia, South Carolina, and parts of southeastern North Carolina.
“The key benefits to designating critical habitat is to put other federal agencies on notice that they must consult with (us) if they intend to authorize, fund, or carry out an action that may affect the habitat of the species,” David Gouveia of NOAA’s Marine Mammals Fisheries Division said in a conference call this week. He emphasized the designation only affects the marine habitat itself and does not involve any additional regulations for vessels that may encounter the whales.
North Atlantic right whales are a federally-protected endangered species. Conservationists say the population is only starting to rebound following decades of whaling, collisions with ships, and entanglements in fishing equipment. About 500 whales are estimated to exist now, spending summers off New England and winters off the Southeast. The whales usually give birth (calve) during winter in the southern zones.
Gouveia said the designation will not have any impact on fishing catches or limits in the affected area. However, it could present a new obstacle for companies seeking to build offshore wind farms or searching for oil and natural gas off South Carolina. Some South Carolina business groups are frustrated about one branch of the federal government (the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) moving to open up the South Atlantic for energy purposes, while NOAA moves the opposite direction.
“The ability to search off our coast is important and this designation will impede that,” said South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance President Lewis Gossett, who supports ongoing surveys for natural gas along the Atlantic shelf. “It will certainly make it more expensive. And that might keep people from looking in South Carolina altogether.”
But conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity praised the decision. “This is one of the most critically-endangered whales in the entire world,” Sarah Uhlemann said. “South Carolina is so lucky to have them off their shores. We’re grateful the federal government is doing everything it can to protect these whales.”
The habitat zones will take effect late next month, 30 days after they were published in the Federal Register.