Before whaling, the population of North Pacific right whales may have been as high as 20,000, but only about 30 North Pacific right whales remain in U.S. waters. They make up the eastern population of the species.
An estimated 900 animals are in the western population off the coasts of Russia, Japan, China and Vietnam.
The Center for Biological Diversity nearly a year ago announced its intention to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service if the agency didn't come up with a recovery plan, and the agency announced in April it would do so.
Center attorney Sarah Uhlemann said endangered species with a recovery plan have a better chance of making a comeback.
"Having blueprint and a roadmap is a very helpful thing," she said.
The whales are only rarely spotted feeding in summer in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. Their winter range and calving areas are largely unknown.
Whalers gave them their name, finding them to be the "right whale" for harvesting. The whales were highly desired as prey because they are big and slow and because they're buoyant after they're killed. They have been listed as endangered since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973.
Adults are 45 to 55 feet, with females at the upper end. Calves are 13 to 15 feet and weigh a ton at birth.
The proposed recovery plan lists multiple threats, starting with the small population. With 30 or fewer animals remaining, a North Pacific right whale lost to a ship strike would be a significant blow, according to the proposal.
Other threats listed include environmental contaminants, the possibility of reduced prey due to climate change, and industrial noise that could increase as sea-ice melt makes northern waters more accessible to commercial ship traffic and oil and gas development.
The plan notes the scarcity of population information on North Pacific right whales and said a primary component would be data collection to help understand the animals' distribution, range and trends.
The agency estimated the cost of recovery actions at $17.1 million.
Uhlemann said the National Marine Fisheries Service correctly notes that more information is needed about North Pacific right whales.
"Unfortunately the agency just sort of ended there in its recovery plan and didn't really address kind of what it plans to do to really deal with some of the threats that this species is facing," she said.
Agency spokeswoman Connie Barclay said the public can comment on the 73-page recovery proposal for 45 days. Adoption of a final recovery plan will depend on the public's feedback and peer review, she said.
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