WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Tuesday that it plans to expand designated critical habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales.
The newly-protected habitat encompasses the whale's feeding areas off the coast of New England in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. The whale's calving grounds of the Southeastern coast, from North Carolina to Florida, will also be protected.
The announcement comes almost a year after the agency agreed to consider an expanded habitat designation for the right whale. NOAA said the rule change will not impact commercial fishing regulations in the regions.
Scientists at the NOAA say new information about the distribution of the right whale confirmed the need to expand the species' critical habitat.
"With two decades of new information and improved understanding since we first designated critical habitat for the species, we believe the expansion will further protect essential foraging and calving areas to further improve recovery of this animal," Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said in a news release.
"We're making significant progress in reversing the population decline of the species, and are seeing signs of recovery -- up to about 500 animals from the estimated 300 in 1994," Sobeck added. "But we still have a long way to get to complete recovery."
Right whales are one of the most endangered whales in the world. Their docile nature and slow swimming, combined with their preference for coastal waters and tendency to stay close to their surface, made them historically vulnerable to whalers.
Today, right whales are most threatened by vessel strikes and entanglement in commercial fishing nets.