March 15, 2010

NOAA unveils rule to protect right whales

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

Staff Writer

The federal government released a revised plan Monday for large-vessel speed limits along the East Coast to prevent deadly collisions with right whales.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's decision to move forward encouraged some conservationists and Maine lobstermen, who argue that their industry has been unfairly singled out as a threat to the whales. The announcement also drew criticism that the agency has watered down the rule and continues to delay action that's needed to protect the endangered whales.

A representative of the shipping industry who had criticized earlier versions of the rule said Monday that he needed more time to review the new proposal before making any statements.

Scientists and conservationists say that slowing large ships would reduce the risk of fatal collisions with the whales, but the shipping industry argues that the speed limit would make large tankers and freighters less maneuverable in costal waters and cause more accidents. The proposed rule stalled for more than a year because of an internal standoff between White House officials and NOAA about the benefits to whales and the costs to industry.

''We have completed what I would call a very extensive and complete review of this rule,'' NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher said Monday during a teleconference. ''If we can save even one or two right whales, we can tip the (balance) to the point the species can increase in population instead of decrease.''

He said scientists estimate that one or two right whales are killed each year by ship strikes.

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service says its preferred rule includes a speed limit of 10 knots -- about 11 mph -- in designated waters along the East Coast. The restricted zones include summer feeding grounds around Cape Cod and the Massachusetts coast, winter calving grounds off the Southeast United States and within 20 nautical miles of mid-Atlantic seaports as whales migrate back and forth.

The proposed rule would expire after five years unless extended, allowing time to determine how effective the measures are, Lautenbacher said.

Whales are more likely to survive when struck by ships at low speed, according to the agency. The lumbering mammals are difficult to see and steer around, and do not seem to move out of the way of ships quickly enough to avoid getting hit.

Conservation groups that have demanded action for years had a mixed response Monday.

The announcement is an indication that progress is being made, said Vicki Cornish, vice president of marine wildlife conservation for the Ocean Conservancy. ''But, what we're seeing is that they compromised.''

Cornish said the five-year sunset clause is a troubling last-minute addition to the rule. It will be hard for federal scientists to assess the rule by then, especially given a lack of resources for monitoring and research, she said.

Conservationists also criticized NOAA for scaling back the speed zones from 30 nautical miles around mid-Atlantic seaports to 20 nautical miles.

That was a clear concession to the White House Office of Management and Budget, said Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists. ''From the beginning, this has been scientifically a fiasco,'' he said.

There are an estimated 300 to 400 right whales living in the North Atlantic. Hunted to near extinction, the whales are now threatened most by ship strikes and entanglements in lobster and fishing gear.

Maine's lobster industry has supported regulation of the shipping industry because lobstermen have been the focus of regulation. Lobstermen here, for example, have until April to switch to rope that sinks to the ocean floor to prevent the risk of entangling right whales.

''It was totally unfair. (Ships) account for 75 percent of the (whales killed by humans), and they weren't doing anything. We account for 25 percent of mortality and we're doing everything,'' said David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

While the news is good for the whales, Cousens said, the five-year expiration clause in the proposed speed limit still reveals a double standard. The restrictions on lobster gear do not have an expiration date.

''Hey, are they going to do that with us, I wonder,'' he said. ''I doubt it.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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