Washington, DC -- The federal government rarely takes action against ships that strike whales in violation of wildlife safeguards, according to records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Earlier this month, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed speed limits, no-shipping areas and designated shipping lanes in the Atlantic Ocean to protect endangered right whales but insiders contend that the agency lacks the experience or resources to enforce those rules.
"What good are the current or proposed whale protections if no one is going to enforce them?" asked New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former federal biologist. "NOAA lacks the training and budget to investigate ship strikes while the Coast Guard, besides being the fifth biggest cause of ship strikes itself, has been consumed by new Homeland Security responsibilities."
Fatal collisions with ships have become a leading threat to whale survival. Ships strikes are on the rise, due to a combination of increasing coastal ship traffic, smaller crew size, bigger vessels and faster speeds. According to records compiled by PEER –
- In the Northeast Atlantic (from Virginia to Maine), there has not been a prosecution for a ship strike of a whale in more than a quarter century despite more than a score of incidents when the identity of the ship could be proven;
- A pregnant humpback was crushed to death by a ship in Alaska's Glacier Bay in July 2001, shortly after Alaska's congressional delegation overruled restrictions on the number of big cruise ships in the Bay. National Park Service investigators linked the fatality to a cruise ship and referred the matter for prosecution. The U.S. Attorney has yet to act on the case;
- Nationally, there is almost a total absence of any civil or criminal prosecution under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Enforcement is lacking even within the National Marine Sanctuaries that have been created specifically to shelter battered populations of marine mammals. NOAA, which operates the sanctuaries, is under attack from the shipping industry, who claims NOAA does not have the jurisdiction to mandate speed limits in marine sanctuaries.
"Without enforceable rules and the resources to enforce these rules, marine sanctuary becomes a misnomer," added Bennett, noting that even the requirements that ships must report when they have struck whales are often unobserved.
Learn about the growing danger to whales from collisions with ships