A U.S. government proposal to dramatically expand habitat protection for the endangered North Atlantic right whale in the Gulf of Maine is being welcomed by a Dalhousie University oceanographer.

"It’s a huge area and it’s nice to see... It’s the result of 20 years of research in the Gulf of Maine," said whale researcher Kim Davies.

On Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began a 60-day public comment period on its proposal to expand two critical habitat areas for the right whale.

North Atlantic right whale

A senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute says there have been documented sightings of North Atlantic right whales in the Bay of Fundy. (Courtesy: New England Aquarium)

One area is in the calving grounds off the southern Atlantic coast and the other is in the foraging areas encompassing the entire Gulf of Maine from Cape Cod to the northern ocean boundary with Canada.

"In essence, we've quadrupled the size of this particular area," said Dave Gouveia, a researcher with NOAA in Gloucester, Mass.

"We're expanding the area that protects what the animals are here in New England to feed on," he said, referring to the tiny crustaceans known as copepods.

'Nobody out looking' in Canada

Canada has designated two critical habitat areas for the right whale at the Roseway Basin off Nova Scotia and the Grand Manan Basin in the lower Bay of Fundy.

Davies says those area are about one-quarter to one-eighth the size of the proposed Gulf of Maine designation. She said there is a "really strong difference in the survey effort between the two countries."

"In Canada, we focus on those two areas (Roseway and Grand Manan), but we know there must be other critical habitat areas we haven't found around Nova Scotia and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence because there are opportunist sightings and we know there are other areas with right whale food out there, but nobody is out looking.”

Dalhousie is launching a new research program that includes some of the same remote-sensing technology used in the Gulf of Maine.

Designation could thwart oil and gas exploration

The designation would have no impact on fishing or ship traffic, but it could be a major roadblock to oil and gas exploration should the U.S. government lift a current moratorium.

"This really raises the bar,' said Gouveia.

"Should they want to explore for oil again within these waters and the Georges Bank, they would have to ensure that activity would not have a detrimental effect on those physical and biological features that we've deemed essential for the conservation of the species."