Plan To Stop Right Whales From Striking Ships Stuck

Critically endangered right whales gather off the coast of New England at this time of year, but many places where they congregate are in the middle of the shipping lanes. Ship strikes are a major threat, but a plan to stop the strikes is in limbo.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Each year around this time, northern right whales in the Atlantic head north for the Bay of Fundy. On their way, the whales pass through shipping lanes in and out of Boston Harbor. A federal plan designed to avoid deadly collisions between the whales and the ships is more than a year overdue, and environmentalists say the delays are a threat to this endangered species.

As NPR's John Nielsen reports.

JOHN NIELSEN: Rare right whales are now moving to an underwater valley leading into Boston Harbor. It's called the Great South Channel. Big ships are constantly traveling over these whales on their way into port. When the whales feed near the surface, they often come up in traffic lanes.

Sharon Young of the Humane Society says that makes her worry about the future of the last 300 right whales left on Earth.

Ms. SHARON YOUNG (Marine Issues Field Director, Humane Society): All you need is one catastrophic thing to happen - I mean, in the Great South Channel, you may have 30 of them feeding within a mile. And if you have a tanker go through at 30 knots and hit them, that's catastrophic. You could lose, literally, 10 percent of the population.

NIELSEN: There's never been a ship strike anywhere near that lethal, but Young and other right whale experts say it is possible. That's why she supports a plan that would make it easier for whales and ships to avoid each other. It is developed by right whale experts at the National Marine Fisheries Service. At the heart of the plan is a rule that would make big ships slow down to 10 knots in coastal waters that just might be harboring the whales.

But from the start, the slowdown rule has been opposed by many shipping companies. Don O'Hare is the president of the World Shipping Council, he says the slowdown rule could actually increase the number of collisions with right whales.

Mr. DON O'HARE (President, World Shipping Council): At 10 knots, ships don't maneuver well, and when they're coming into ports along the East Coast, they come in to a very tight traffic separations schemes, you have ships entering and departing ports, and it's just an unsafe speed to be coming in in tight quarters and in varying weather conditions.

NIELSEN: O'Hare notes that he would support a rule that puts lookouts on boats and up in helicopters, but officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service overruled those kinds of arguments in February 2007 when they published a slowdown rule that was sent over the White House Office of Management and Budget. It's been there ever since.

According to OMB documents, White House representatives have repeatedly questioned the validity of studies linking right whales death to ship speeds. But officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service stood behind their findings. This internal standoff has kept the slowdown program bottled up for more than a year now.

Amy Knowlton, a whale expert with the New England Aquarium, says that is far too long.

Ms. AMY KNOWLTON (Whale Expert, New England Aquarium): We don't have time to waste to dillydally with some political maneuverings like this. It's just its species are - it's one of the most endangered species on Earth, and it's really a huge shame that this administration will not step to the plate and take the action that should be taken.

NIELSEN: Federal biologists have found new ways to help these whales in the meantime. Ships are being sent away from where the whales are often found, for example.

Whale expert Jim Lecky of the National Marine Fisheries Service says that may be partly why it's now been two years since a big ship killed a right whale. But, like he says, it could also be just dump luck, that's because you'll never really know where these right whales are going to turn up.

Mr. JIM LECKY (Whale Expert, National Marine Fisheries Service): These are large black animals with no dorsal fin and they kind of - they're not very surfacely active. So they're - they don't do a lot of splashing, for example, like humpback whales do. So they're relatively hard to see, you know, if there's any kind of stormy condition or fog or night, you can't see them.

NIELSEN: A spokesman for the OMB says they comment on rules that are still under review. A spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service say a rule could come out soon.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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