A humpback whale breaches in Frederick Sound in 2015. (Joe Sykes/KFSK)

A judge has agreed to another extension for a final rule on designating critical habitat for endangered and threatened humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean.

Wildlife conservation groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network and Wishtoyo Foundation sued the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2018 seeking to force designation of waters important to three different populations of whales. The habitat ruling is a requirement of the Endangered Species Act. The groups hope it will help the whales rebound that range into the waters off Mexico, Central America and into the western North Pacific Ocean. The numbers for these populations remain low while humpbacks that frequent other parts of the Pacific are flourishing and have been removed from ESA listing.

The agency issued a proposed rule in 2019 to designate thousands of square miles off the coast of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California. And it identified some of the threats to these whales, including fishing gear entanglement. NMFS held hearings on the proposed rule from California to Alaska in 2019 and 2020 and received thousands of comments. Habitat designation requires the federal government to show its decisions are not destroying waters important to survival of those humpbacks. Commercial fishermen, the state of Alaska and municipalities in Southeast Alaska opposed the proposed rule and want Alaskan waters left out of the final decision.

Based on a court agreement, the deadline for the final rule was January 15th, 2021. However, the federal government asked for additional time to review its final decision before releasing it and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit agreed.

On January 19th U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam Jr. granted an additional 90 days. That puts the new deadline for the final rule on April 15th.