Whale Advocates Gain Victory

A rare North Atlantic right whale dives in Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown, Mass.
A rare North Atlantic right whale dives in Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown, Mass. (By Stephan Savoia -- Associated Press)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 19, 2008

A federal appeals court yesterday ruled in favor of environmentalists seeking protection for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, giving those activists a victory in a long-running fight to prevent whale-ship collisions.

The decision, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, overturns a lower-court ruling that the U.S. Coast Guard should not have to perform a review of the ways that cargo-ship traffic might endanger the whales. It marked the latest twist in a years-long battle over whales and ships off the East Coast.

Environmental activists want ships to slow down in areas where whales congregate or go around them. But a proposed rule aimed at setting speed limits in whale areas has been held up by Bush administration officials for more than a year.

Yesterday's decision turned on issues of jurisdiction, and it did not formally order the Coast Guard to do anything. Instead, it remanded the matter back to a lower court.

But environmental groups said they were hopeful that the result of the decision would be a Coast Guard review -- and, after that, a series of measures intended to protect whales from ships.

"The Coast Guard is now going to have to live up to its responsibilities," said Andrew Hawley of the Defenders of Wildlife, a plaintiff in the case. "It's exactly the outcome we were looking for."

A Coast Guard spokeswoman said no officials were available to comment on the ruling last night.

The North Atlantic right whales -- which got their name because 19th-century whalers considered them the "right," or easiest, whales to hunt -- were almost destroyed by whaling. They now number about 300.

Scientists consider them "one of the most critically endangered large whale species in the world," according to the court opinion.

The animals are often found in New England and Canadian waters in summer and fall, but females travel south past the mid-Atlantic to give birth in waters off Georgia and Florida in winter.

Along the way, activists say, three or more are struck every year by ships coming to or from East Coast ports -- a critical loss, they say, for a species so seriously endangered.

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