The protected habitat for North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species that spends time off the coast of Georgia, will expand by more than six times its current area. The areas designated as critical habitat include feeding grounds in the Northeast and calving grounds in the Southeast.
The decision, made by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, comes at the same time as the federal government is also considering allowing offshore oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic.
The protected habitat itself is unlikely to be affected by drilling or exploration, said Barb Zoodsma, a biologist with NOAA.
“The first question to ask is, ‘What are the features that are essential to right whale calving here in the Southeast?’” she said. “Those features have to do with water depth, water temperature.”
The area proposed for offshore drilling is a minimum of 50 miles off the coast, while the critical habitat for the whales extends about 30 miles out.
But, Zoodsma said, while offshore oil exploration is unlikely to affect the habitat, it could still affect the whales.
“The effects to the species, the effects to the animals, are contemplated wherever the animals may be found,” she said.
According to NOAA there were about 450 of the whales in 2014.