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.
After fierce lobbying by the lobstermen, however, the government exempted 71 percent of Maine's state waters, and several scientists said the rule is now not aggressive enough to prevent entanglements.
The proposed ship strike rule has proved more problematic. Since Feb. 20, the OMB has been analyzing the rule's economic impact, which NOAA officials estimated at $116 million a year -- less than four-hundredths of one percent of the $300 billion East Coast shipping trade. The OMB extended its usual 90-day review another 30 days in May, but did not release the rule after that first extension expired.
OMB spokesman Sean Kevelighan declined to comment on the review beyond saying in an e-mail, "Sometimes because of a variety of issues, some rules take longer time than others."
Both the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Council of Economic Advisers have scrutinized the data underlying the ship strike rule, sources said, and representatives of the White House have joined interagency talks on the matter.
In an interview this week, NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. said his agency is still responding to questions posed by the White House and other agencies.
"We're reaching the culmination of a very detailed and thorough process. . . . This is an area where everyone wants to be very careful, and there's a lot of interest in it," he said, adding that the rule "has a significant effect both for the environment and the economy."
NOAA officials stand by their proposal, which took five years to draft and involved an analysis of more than 100 policy options.
"We did our homework," said Greg Silber, coordinator of NOAA's large whale recovery activities. "Our mandate is to recover an endangered species, and that's what we're trying to do."
Part of the problem is that because there are so few surviving right whales, any analysis of whale-ship interactions focuses on just 58 incidents. A 2006 paper published by two oceanographers at Canada's Dalhousie University, Angelia S.M. Vanderlaan and Christopher T. Taggart, concluded that between 1960 and 2002 right whales were twice as likely to be the victim of ship strikes as any other large whale in the North Atlantic, but if the ships' speed were kept below 15 knots, "there is a substantial decrease in the probability that a vessel strike to a large whale will prove lethal."
A 2007 paper published by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the New England Aquarium suggested that the risk a conventional ship poses to right whales drops 40 percent if the ship's speed drops from more than 20 knots to 10 knots.
"There's a ton of evidence that speed kills," Kraus said. "It's the same reason we don't build superhighways in front of elementary schools."
The World Shipping Council, however, has criticized NOAA's ship strike proposal -- which affects ships at least 65 feet long and traveling within 30 nautical miles of ports between Savannah, Ga., and New York City, between Nov. 1 and April 30 -- as ineffective and costly. Outlining its objections in a May 3 letter to the OMB, the council noted that government vessels would be exempted despite having struck right whales several times in the past, and questioned whether smaller ships might pose an even greater danger to the animals than large container ships.
"The problem with the proposal is that the agency's own analysis provides virtually no basis to believe that the proposed speed reduction regulations will have the desired effect," wrote Donald L. O'Hare, a council vice president.
Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States, disputed such protests.
"There is no easy, pain-free solution. But we're talking about the survival of one of the most beleaguered, emblematic animals in the country," Young said. "Everyone says, 'We want to save the whales,' but you have to do something about it."