U.S. Federal Agencies Spar over Right Whale
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
North Atlantic right whales are teetering on the verge of extinction. There are only about 300 of the majestic creatures left. Yet they're being killed off at an alarming rate, hit by ships. The National Marine Fisheries Service has a plan to prevent more deaths, but another federal agency is getting in the way. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:
The National Marine Fisheries Service would like commercial ships to slow down in waters where right whales may be present. Greg Silber says the agency asked the Coast Guard to broadcast that request earlier this year.
Mr. GREG SILBER (National Marine Fisheries Service): What we were interested in doing is issuing speed guidelines to mariners in areas where we know right whales are occurring.
SHOGREN: Silber said it would be a small thing that could make a big difference in the survival of the endangered giants. Right whales were devastated by whaling and have never recovered. Now instead of being harpooned, they die entangled in fishing lines or after being struck by ships. At least seven right whales have been killed by ships in recent years, several of those pregnant females.
Mr. SILBER: We cannot turn our backs on this population. We need to do everything that we can to try to recover the species.
SHOGREN: And that includes asking ships to slow down.
Mr. SILBER: In my mind, absolutely. I think that's a small price for you and I to pay to try to protect and fully recover this population.
SHOGREN: But last month, the Coast Guard commandant turned down that request, citing concerns about national security and international legal obligations. Lieutenant Commander Jeff Carter says advising commercial ships to slow down is a lot to ask.
Lieutenant Commander JEFF CARTER (US Coast Guard): A lot of commerce is delivered on demand as required, and it's meant to get there when it's needed. Whenever there's a delay, that adversely impacts the economies of companies and countries. And so we have to take that into account.
SHOGREN: He says even though the speed guidelines would apply only to commercial vessels, they could hinder rescue attempts or efforts to catch criminals or terrorists.
Lt. Cmdr. CARTER: If there were a Coast Guard or a naval vessel or even a merchant vessel trying to render aid in a safety situation, we want to make sure that they can still proceed without being impeded.
SHOGREN: And he criticizes the language recommended by the Fisheries Service.
Lt. Cmdr. CARTER: Using words like `extreme' in front of `caution' and `slow' in front of `safe speeds,' those went against accepted international terminology.
SHOGREN: He says some countries may reciprocate with their own restrictions.
Ms. AMY KNOWLTON (New England Aquarium): I think if the Coast Guard were to implement speed restrictions, it would be unprecedented around the world, but we also have an unprecedented situation with right whales.
SHOGREN: Amy Knowlton is a right whale expert at the New England Aquarium.
Ms. KNOWLTON: We could lose another eight animals in a given year to ship strikes, and at some point, it will come to a point where the population cannot recover.
SHOGREN: Right now, the Coast Guard tells mariners to be on the lookout for whales, but Bruce Russell, a retired Coast Guard commander who, until recently, worked as a consultant to the National Marine Fisheries Service, says there's one problem with that.
Mr. BRUCE RUSSELL (Retired Coast Guard Commander): Ninety-nine percent of the time, 99.9 percent of the time, that whale is going to be invisible.
SHOGREN: So what good does a lookout do?
Mr. RUSSELL: None.
SHOGREN: Slowing down does help. Scientists are not sure why, but they think slower speeds may give the huge animals time to get out of the way. They also may make collisions less deadly. The Coast Guard is willing to keep talking about a solution, but the New England Aquarium's Amy Knowlton says the whales can't afford to wait while the government agencies negotiate.
Ms. KNOWLTON: The speed restriction is the thorniest part of the process, and it's the only thing that will really, ultimately, help right whales.
SHOGREN: The Fisheries Service is not giving up. It's now asking the Weather Service to advise mariners to slow down when whales might be around, and it's working on regulations that could result in mandatory speed limits. But it'll take at least two years before they're in place.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.
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