Washington, DC — White House officials are blocking vital, long-overdue rules to protect the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale from ship strikes, the leading cause of mortality, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Congressional impatience at the continuing delay is boiling up in both houses, as reflected by demand letters sent this month to President Bush.
The rising concern is rooted in the conclusion that further delays threaten this species with extinction. The right whale has reached a current official “Potential Biological Removal” level of zero, meaning that the population cannot sustain the premature loss of even one more whale.
More than one year ago, on June 26, 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 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. Public comment on the NOAA plan ended back in October 2006 and a proposed rule was forwarded to the President’s Office of Management & Budget (OMB) this February. Since that time, the plan has been held up by the White House, well past the normal 90-day review period.
On July 31, 2007, in testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee, Dr. William Hogarth, head of NOAA Fisheries, responding to questions about delays in finalizing the proposed ship speed in right whale habitat, stated that he was confident of the science on which the rule was based, and asserted that the rule would be formally promulgated within two weeks. Two weeks have passed since his testimony and the rule has still not been issued.
PEER today wrote to Dr. Hogarth seeking an explanation as to what or who is holding up enactment of the final rule. On August 6, 2007, six key House members, including Natural Resources Committee Chair Nick Rahall (D-WV) and the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans Chair Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU), wrote President Bush urging him to end the blockade on the ship speed limits rule. On August 10, three key Senators, Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Ted Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts sent a similar letter expressing their “grave concern” about further delays.
“With only 300 right whales left in existence, this species does not have the luxury to wait for the outcome of protracted political games,” 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. “Last year, four right whales died from ship strikes and we cannot afford to lose any more.”
Foreign shipping companies are lobbying the White House to kill the speed limit rules because most all of the affected vessels are foreign owned or registered. OMB has responded by ordering the President’s Council of Economic Advisors to conduct a highly unusual review of both the economics and the biological science underpinning the rule.
“Congress may have to hold hearings in order to extract this rule from the special interest abyss into which it has been consigned,” Bennett concluded.