Sunday, December 05, 2010

{Press} Rules protect right whales from speeding ships

StarNews Online | Gareth McGrath | December 4, 2010

"The federal government has again enacted go-slow zones for vessels traveling along the mid-Atlantic coast to help protect one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world.

But this year, the speed-limit rules meant to prevent large ships from colliding with the North Atlantic right whales come with some muscle behind them.

For the first time since the seasonal management areas were established in December 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has cited seven vessels for allegedly going too fast.

The notice of violations issued earlier this month was for ships that allegedly traveled multiple times through the zones last year at speeds well in excess of the 10 knots allowed.

The rule requires all ships over 65 feet to slow down to 10 knots, or 11.5 mph, when within 20 nautical miles of mid-Atlantic ports, including North Carolina's two deepwater ports in Wilmington and Morehead City.

The go-slow zones run from Nov. 1 through April 30, the times at which North Atlantic right whales are known to migrate along the near-shore waters extending from Rhode Island to Georgia.

The animal's calving grounds are off Georgia and Florida, although the whales have been known to give birth farther north also.

Right whales were once a relatively common sight along the U.S. coastline.

But the large, slow-moving whale received its name because it was the easiest – and hence the "right" – whale for 19th-century whalers to hunt, which they did with reckless abandon.

That's left a population today estimated at only 400 animals, with every whale considered critical for the species survival.

But Ann Pabst, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said that for the first time in a long time she's feeling optimistic about the animal's chances to avoid extinction.

Ship strikes and getting tangled in old fishing gear are among the leading killers of the animals.

But since the new speed-limit rules for ships were introduced, Pabst said, there hasn't been a known ship-strike death of a right whale in the Southeast.

Coupled with that, the slow-breeding right whale has been on a bit of a birthing boom.

Pabst said that since 2001, an estimated 200 calves have been born – including two believed to have been born off Wrighstville Beach by "Calvin," who was originally identified as a male before scientists discovered otherwise.

"So the right whales are doing their part," she said. "And with these continued conservation and management steps we've taken in recent years, I'm hopeful we're on the right path."

But, Pabst cautioned, there's still a long way to go.

To that end she said mariners should immediately notify the Coast Guard if they see a right whale, or any whale for that matter, off the coast.

Pabst said the annual migration south takes place in the fall and early winter, with the whales returning to their summer grounds off New England and the Canadian maritime provinces in late spring.

"And they're here now," she said, adding that boaters should also stay a safe distance away from the animals if they happen to come across one. "There's no doubt about that."

Pabst said there were several sightings just before Thanksgiving, with the Coast Guard issuing an alert to mariners Nov. 22"

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