The Wrong Way to Save Right Whales?

A male calf died from apparent vessel strike off Jekyll Island, Ga.
A male calf died from apparent vessel strike off Jekyll Island, Ga. (Courtesy of Marine Wildlife Cons)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sixteen months ago, a federal agency proposed slowing ships in certain East Coast waters to 10 knots or less during parts of the year to save the North Atlantic right whale, one of the world's most endangered marine mammals, from extinction.

Nine months later, officials at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the situation was so dire that the loss of one more pregnant female might be the death knell for the species, whose surviving population numbers fewer than 400.

Today, however, the rule remains the subject of intense debate among senior White House officials, and the toll keeps rising: Since NOAA published the proposed rule, researchers have found three of the whales dead from ship strikes, and another two suffering from propeller wounds.

The question of how best to protect right whales -- which got their name as the "right whale" to kill in the heyday of whaling because they floated after being harpooned -- has proved vexing to regulators, since attempts to protect them have economic consequences for powerful political constituencies, including international shipping interests and Maine lobstermen.

Equally important, administration officials have yet to be convinced that slowing ships as they cross paths with the migrating whales is an effective way to protect the imperiled species.

"A number of agencies have expressed concern about the rule and the impact of the rule," said a participant in the deliberations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on internal discussions. "Everyone wants to make sure if we impose these restrictions, that we are actually improving the chances of the right whale to survive."

The slow pace of federal action on the NOAA proposal, however, has triggered suspicions among advocates that political interests are blocking a regulation that the scientific evidence amply justifies.

"It looks like an economic decision, not a scientific decision," said Scott Kraus, vice president for research at the New England Aquarium in Boston. "The science behind this rule is airtight."

In March, shortly after the Office of Management and Budget started reviewing the ship strike rule, NOAA published its assessment that the "potential biological removal" the species could tolerate -- the number of animals it could afford to lose to an untimely death -- was "zero."

Experts say it is far from certain that one more death will doom the species to extinction, but they emphasize that a single ship strike can have a ripple effect through the population because adult females, who can potentially give birth to five or more calves during their lifetime, are disproportionately likely to be hit because they stick closer to shore.

"Every time you have a mortality, you're bringing the possibility of extinction to fruition," said Vicki Cornish, who directs marine wildlife conservation at the Ocean Conservancy, an advocacy group.

The administration has taken other steps to protect right whales. In July, it slightly shifted shipping lanes that lead into Boston Harbor through the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the country's only whale feeding sanctuary, after scientists determined that whales there were traveling close to the surface and crossing paths with vessels. This month, the government finalized a rule that bans lobstermen from using floating lines between traps because they sometimes entangle right whales.

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