This Thing Called Courage

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Right Whales Gain Right-of-Way at Sea

By Beth Daley

Boston Globe Staff

For 10 years, scientists and environmentalists have fought to force large ships to slow down to avoid hitting any of the world's remaining 400 North Atlantic right whales. Starting today, ships will finally have to put on the brakes.
A new federal rule requires ships 65 feet or larger to slow to 11.5 miles per hour, or 10 knots, near East Coast ports when whales could be nearby. The lumbering, giant whales feed close to the sea surface and are at great risk of being struck by ships - especially because many shipping lanes slice across their migration routes. Whales are just now beginning their seasonal migration from New England waters to their calving grounds off Florida and Georgia.
"At long last, the ocean is going to be a little bit safer for right whales - cause for celebration among the many of us who have worked for the past decade to see this rule enacted," said Amy Knowlton, of the New England Aquarium's right whale research team.
The dark-colored whales - so named because they float when dead and thus were the "right" whale to kill for oil - have never made a comeback after being hunted nearly to extinction in the 1700s. Many of the creatures get tangled in fishing gear, but scientists say ships are now their major killer: At least one-third of all the right whales that died in the past decade were fatally injured by ship strikes. Since 2001, at least 12 right whales have been struck by ships.
While researchers have known for years that right whales were vulnerable to ship strikes, the shipping industry was loath to slow down maritime traffic, saying it would cost too much to do so.
But a growing body of evidence showed that the probability of right whales dying after being struck drops from more than 80 percent, if a vessel is traveling about 17 miles per hour or more, to just over 20 percent if the ship is moving at 11.5 miles per hour or less. The average speed of vessels in right whale habitats has been around 17 miles per hour.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sent a marine speed limit rule to the White House to be finalized in early 2007, but it was held up in the federal Office of Management and Budget. It wasn't until environmentalists, Senator John Kerry, and others publicly urged its passage that the rule was released - although in slightly weaker form than many scientists wanted.
Still, few environmentalists or scientists are complaining today. They believe the rule will help save right whale lives. And that, Knowlton said, just may mean the survival of the species.


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