18 July 2005

Bid to protect whales from ships hits snag

The federal government wants to protect the endangered right whale from getting hit by ships, and the solution seems simple enough: Have vessels slow down whenever they get near areas used by the whales.

But legal and political obstacles are complicating the process.

The U.S. Coast Guard recently rebuffed a request from federal fisheries managers to warn ship captains to slow down whenever they approach an area where whales have been sighted.

The Coast Guard's refusal to broadcast warnings has angered conservation groups, who say the Coast Guard is more interested in protecting its own "bureaucratic turf" than saving the whale from the brink of extinction.

"These federal agencies have a legal obligation to protect these animals," said Kyla Bennett, New England director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "It appears the Coast Guard is so afraid of endorsing voluntary speed limits, they are refusing to even issue advisory warnings. I find that absolutely ludicrous."

Coast Guard officials say they want to protect the whales, but they are wrestling with several complicated issues: international agreements, trade, public safety and national security.

"We want to make sure every solution we have is a workable solution," said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter, a spokesman. "The issue is not over, and discussions are continuing."

The issue surfaced in May when the National Marine Fisheries Service asked the Coast Guard to put out an advisory to shippers that recommends they slow down to around 12 knots in areas used by right whales. That's 14 mph, about half the normal speed of many oil tankers, container ships and cruise ships.

In a reply letter dated June 9, Coast Guard Adm. Thomas Collins rejected the request, saying it could be viewed as a Coast Guard endorsement of speed restrictions. The public employees group issued a press release Monday that contained a copy of Collins' letter.

In Maine, ship strikes have become part of the debate over a federal proposal to ban floating lobster-trap lines, which are viewed as an entanglement hazard for right whales.

Many Maine lobstermen believe such a ban would be a hardship because the only alternative - sinking lines - would snag on the rocky ocean bottom. They say regulators are unfairly targeting fishermen while not doing enough to prevent ship strikes.

That complaint is justified, said Tora Johnson, who teaches at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor and has written a book on right whales and fishermen.

"The feds have dragged their feet," she said. "The culpability lies with both the fisheries service and the Coast Guard. They have not taken on the task to solve the problem."

Johnson said it appears that at least half of known whale fatalities are due to ship strikes, and the rest are due to entanglements with fishing gear. According to a preliminary fisheries service analysis, there have been seven known right whale fatalities from ship strikes since 1999.

Some lobstermen are sympathetic to the shipping industry. Clive Farren, president of the Downeast Lobstermen's Association, said the right whale population is now so small that the species will become extinct no matter what the federal government does to protect it.

"If they are doomed anyway," he asked, "why make life difficult for people who are trying to make a living?"

The fisheries service believes strongly that steps need to be taken to save the whale, and it is working with the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard, said Gregory Silber, who coordinates recovery activity for endangered large whales for the service.

Although the fisheries service is taking the lead, he said, saving the whale from extinction will require the cooperation of other federal agencies. "We need to address it as a nation," he said.

Next year, the fisheries service plans to issue proposed rules for preventing ship strikes. The rebuff from the Coast Guard is a sign of how difficult that process will be, said Bruce Russell, a former Coast Guard official who chaired a fisheries service committee that worked on ship strike issues.

For the shipping industry, taking steps to avoid ship strikes would cost less than $17 million annually, a relatively small amount of money for an industry that grosses billions of dollars a year, Russell said. But some ports oppose the restrictions because they worry they will become less competitive, he said.

Russell said ports in New York City, Jacksonville, Fla., and Hampton Roads, Va., would be most affected by proposals to limit ship strikes.

Johnson, the college teacher, said getting ships to slow down would seem to be a relatively easy thing to do.

"Every time you approach an agency of the government with a solution," she said, "the answer is always, 'This is far more complicated than you know. We can't do this.' "

Source: pressherald.mainetoday.com


Post a Comment

<< Home