Whale-Protection Cuts Sought

One of the leading causes of death for right whales, this one with a calf off the coast of Florida in February 2005, is collision with a ship.
One of the leading causes of death for right whales, this one with a calf off the coast of Florida in February 2005, is collision with a ship. (Associated Press)
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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Bush administration yesterday proposed scaling back protected zones for endangered whales in the Atlantic Ocean, yielding to cargo companies' concerns about new speed limits for ships in these areas.

The proposal, unveiled yesterday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, could end more than a year of wrangling between federal fisheries scientists and the White House over new measures to protect the North Atlantic right whale. About 300 of the whales remain, and researchers say their tiny population has been reduced further by fatal collisions with large ships.

In July 2006, NOAA announced plans to create 30-nautical-mile buffer zones off of several East Coast ports, in which ships would be required to slow to 10 nautical miles per hour during certain times of the year.

But cargo companies said that this would cause their ships to lose time and burn more fuel, and the proposal was held up for months by the administration.

Yesterday, in a document called an environmental impact statement, NOAA announced a change. Its new plan would reduce the buffer zone to 20 nautical miles, or about 23 standard miles.

Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the agency, said the reduction was motivated in part by shippers' concerns. "Time is money in shipping," Franklin said. "There was a concern about the increased cost to carriers . . . We accommodated that by reducing the speed zones."

The new plan would put in place the first speed zones off the U.S. coast aimed at helping right whales. But environmentalists and those who study the whales said they were unhappy with the changes. Any reduction in protection, they said, could be dangerous for a species so close to the brink.

"It's disappointing that it can't be all that it could be," said Amy Knowlton, a researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston. "If we didn't lose one or two females a year" because of the expanded speed zones, she said, "that could be the difference between letting this population recover, and letting this population continue into extinction."

The right whales' population crashed because of 19th-century whaling -- whalers called them "right" whales because they were the easiest to hunt. But in recent decades, scientists say, one major known cause of death has been collisions with ships.

To reduce those, NOAA proposes to create seasonal speed-limit zones off Georgia and Florida, in the whales' calving grounds, and in their feeding areas off Cape Cod. It would also establish similar zones off major ports from New York to Brunswick, Ga. -- including the Hampton Roads ports.

According to the "preferred alternative" in the impact statement released by NOAA, these areas off the ports would be in force from Nov. 1 to April 30, as whales migrate.

"We want the speed to be slow enough so that the whales . . . have a chance to get out of the way, or the blow will be a glancing blow, and they will survive," NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. said in a telephone news conference yesterday. He said that the agency does not think the ships themselves are maneuverable enough to change course and miss a whale.

Franklin, the NOAA spokesman, said that about 83 percent of right whale sightings are within 20 nautical miles of shore. Within 30 miles of shore, the number is about 90 percent, he said.

The proposal was criticized yesterday by the World Shipping Council, a trade group that has led opposition to the idea of speed zones.

"We continue to see no scientific or statistical support on the record of the rulemaking to show that a 10-knot speed limit for large ships around East Coast ports will help protect right whales," the group said in a statement. Typically, ships in this area might travel 20 knots an hour or faster.


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