The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently expanded the endangered North Atlantic right whale's critical habitat by nearly 30,000 square nautical miles. This expansion - now more than six times the area originally designated - gives the animals more room to swim about safely.

The agency announced the expansion will take place in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank (a large continental-shelf area that separates the Gulf of Maine from the Atlantic Ocean off New England), the main foraging area for the whales, and off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, where mothers give birth to their calves. However, it will not include right whale migratory routes through the mid-Atlantic.

The 40-ton baleen species was brought to the brink of extinction by commercial whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the federal government listed the right whale as endangered in 1970. Recently, however, a slight recovery of the species has been seen, with approximately 500 right whales alive today - a substantial increase from only 300 reported in 1994.

"We have made progress," David Gouveia, the marine mammal and sea turtle conservation coordinator for the Greater Atlantic Region of the NOAA Fisheries, said in a statement. "We are on a positive trajectory but there is still plenty of work to be done."

Previous conservation efforts, including speed restrictions on large vessels entering port and use regulations of certain fishing gear have greatly aided in the species' comeback. Expanding the critical habitat should also help, Gouveia said.

The designations are based on many years of aircraft and ship surveys of right whales and their habits, and while they do not create refuges or restrictions that affect fishing, they will make it more difficult for offshore projects such as energy exploration, seismic testing, and dredging to acquire the appropriate permits.

"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 NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said in the agency's release.

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