at the

Even the Whales Have Their Predators: Ships

From The New York Times
12 April 2008

— On a day so clear the ocean, from certain angles, is nothing but a field of glare, a team of spotters in a Twin Otter airplane flies a precise grid pattern, looking for North Atlantic right whales in the warm, shallow waters they use as their winter calving ground.

The goal is not scientific but protective: to keep ships from hitting the slow-moving, endangered whales as they creep along their coast-hugging migratory route, passing in view of the last remaining undeveloped barrier islands that flank the southern Georgia coast.

A beeper notifies the spotters that seven adult whales have just been sighted by another team in the waters off Charleston, S.C. The news is not particularly comforting to Patricia Naessig, the right whale aerial survey coordinator for the Wildlife Trust, which operates such flights here under public contract.

“They still have a bit of a gantlet to pass,” Ms. Naessig said over the headset she wore to communicate above the noise of the plane’s engines. “There’s a huge amount of shipping interests in Charleston Harbor.”

Ships are one of the two leading causes of unnatural death among right whales, and scientists have warned that the unnatural death of even one breeding female has the potential to tip the species toward extinction. From 2002 to 2006, there were 17 confirmed deaths by ship strike, at least six involving adult females.

In an effort to stop the fatalities, the National Marine Fisheries Service has tried to impose speed limits on ships within 30 miles of port. But the White House has delayed approval of the rule, which is opposed by some shipping companies.

The White House Office of Management and Budget is supposed to review federal agencies’ rule proposals within 90 days, with an optional 30-day extension. In the case of the right whale ship strike rule, it has been more than a year.

“Agencies are doing due diligence to develop a balanced rule that is effective in protecting endangered species,” said Jane K. Lee, a spokeswoman for the budget office. Ms. Lee declined to explain the rule review process or answer questions about the 90-day deadline.

The North Atlantic right whale, which grows to more than 60 feet and is black with distinctive white markings, is the state marine mammal of Georgia and could be called America’s own whale. The hunting of it in the 1800s bolstered the success of the country’s whaling industry, but depleted the stock so severely that hunting it was banned in 1935.

The remaining whales, now rare, travel the Atlantic coast from the Bay of Fundy to Cape Cod to Florida, a habit that has made them vulnerable to ship strikes and another lethal problem, entanglement in fishing gear.

Particularly at risk are the females that come south starting in early winter to give birth and nurse. The mothers do not feed while calving or producing the thousands of gallons of milk it takes to nourish their young, and that leaves them in a weakened state for their return journey, beginning in early spring.

It was only about 25 years ago, after dead calves began washing up on Southern beaches, that scientists learned that right whales used this area as a nursery, said Barb Zoodsma, right whale recovery program coordinator in the Southeast regional office of the fisheries service, an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For nearly 20 years, the fisheries service has tried various methods of protecting the right whales, like recommending shipping-route changes and radioing ships to notify them of whale sightings. The aerial surveys off the Florida, Georgia and South Carolina coasts alone cost $1.5 million a year in taxpayer money.

But the effect of the measures, especially those where compliance is voluntary, has been limited. A 2005 study showed that 95 percent of ships notified of whale sightings failed to slow down or skirt the area.

After a three-year deliberative process that included the efforts of working groups, environmental and economic impact statements, and more than 5,000 public comments, the fisheries service proposed that during whale season, which varies by region, ships greater than 65 feet be limited to 10 knots as they near port.

Ship companies, port authorities, pilot associations, the Navy and even operators of whale watch tours have opposed the rule, saying that the permitted speed would be too low for safe steerage, that foreign vessels cannot be forced to follow American speed limits or that the restriction would cost too much.

The Georgia Ports Authority asked how the agency could “responsibly justify putting the entire economic burden for compliance with speed restrictions on 100 percent of the oceangoing commercial fleet when, at best, it may be responsible for less than 50 percent of the collisions?”

(The rule would exempt Navy and Coast Guard vessels, which are already supposed to take steps to protect the whales under the Endangered Species Act. Nor would it apply to smaller vessels, a source of growing concern among some experts. Whales have been fatally hit by recreational boats, and the experts fear that increasing development on the Georgia coast, including a proposal for an 800-boat marina that would be the state’s largest, will only make calving season more hazardous.)

The World Shipping Council, an organization of mostly foreign-owned ship operators, has protested that there is not enough proof that reducing speed also reduces collisions. The council offers its own models that show speeding up lowers the chances of a whale strike.
Environmentalists are skeptical.

“The argument they’re using is, well, the faster they go, the faster they’re in and out of the way,” said Vicki Cornish, vice president for marine wildlife conservation at the Ocean Conservancy, which supports the rule. “So let’s put speeding cars in front of a school so they’re in and out of the way before they hit a child.”