Washington, DC — Canada is moving ahead with important new protections to prevent further deaths of highly endangered North Atlantic right whales from ship strikes, the leading cause of mortality. At the same time, the White House is sitting on a plan developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to impose speed limits on ships crossing the migratory path of the right whale, according to documents released today Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The Canadian initiative would declare the principal feeding grounds of the right whale southwest of Nova Scotia off-limits to shipping. If adopted, the more than one thousand square mile Roseway Basin would be deemed an “Area to Be Avoided” from June to December, when right whales are in the area, and nautical maps would be amended to bear that designation. The plan is expected to be ratified next month by the International Maritime Organization, an arm of the United Nations.
By contrast, in the U.S. the White House has intervened to block finalization of proposed speed limits of 10 knots (or 11.5 miles per hour) for shipping along the eastern seaboard during the migration of right whales between Florida and New England. The plan was ready for adoption after public comment ended in October 2006, but the 90-day formal review by the President’s Office of Management & Budget has stretched to nearly a year with no completion date in sight.
In a September 4, 2007 letter to PEER, NOAA Fisheries Director William Hogarth, who had testified before Congress this July that approval was expected within two weeks, admitted that “the review is ongoing” and offered no new prediction of how much longer this review would take. Nonetheless, Hogarth stressed ship “collisions are the primary threat to the recovery of this highly endangered species.”
“Once again, the U.S. is forfeiting its leadership on a planetary environmental challenge due to parochial politics,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former federal biologist, who has waged a three-year-long effort for speed limits and other ship strike reduction measures. “These speed limits are the key ingredient to the essential strategy for averting near-term extinction of these magnificent animals.”
The reason for the White House intervention is the opposition of foreign shipping companies under the banner of the World Shipping Council. Massive container ships move at speeds that do not allow the slow-moving whales lolling on the surface to get out of the way before being struck. For example, last year, an 800-foot long container ship steamed into Baltimore Harbor with the carcass of a rare sei whale pinioned to its prow. Due to the vessel size and speed, its crew did not even notice the impact with a 17,000 pound male sei whale, a species only slightly smaller than the blue whale, the largest creature on earth.
“In our coastal waters, rare whales are merely speed bumps,” added Bennett pointing to the scores of whale ship strike deaths in the Atlantic in recent years. “’Save the whales’ is no longer just a slogan; it can be a reality if the U.S. will only muster the political will to do what its scientists say is necessary.”