Friday, December 03, 2010

{Press} Ships Break Speed Limits Set to Protect Right Whales

OnEarth Blog | Emily Gertz | December 2, 2010

"Christmastime. The winter holidays. Five weeks best spent hiding under a rock. Whatever you like to call this time of year, chances are that "period when seasonal speed limits go into effect off the Atlantic coast" has never come to mind.

But under a 2008 law intended to curb violent collisions between big ships and extremely endangered North Atlantic right whales, seasonal speed limits of 10 knots per hour (roughly 12 mph) took effect in early November, for vessels 65 feet long or greater. The rules apply to "seasonal management areas" where right whales are known to travel.

And the Obama administration is apparently enforcing them: In mid-November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), announced that it had charged seven commercial ships with 49 counts of potentially deadly speeding, in violation of the right whale protection law.

NOAA is not revealing the identities of the seven vessels, says agency spokeswoman Lesli Bales-Sherrod, "until we know that the owners and operators have received the NOVAs," or notices of violations. She states that they have until mid-December to respond in one of three ways: pay the fines, ranging from $16,500 to $49,500; ask for the fines to be reduced; or request an administrative hearing over the charges.

Bales-Sherrod did convey that most the violations occurred in seasonal management areas, or SMAs, off the southeastern U.S. -- 26 in the Charleston SMA, 10 in the Savannah SMA, and 8 in the Norfolk SMA -- along with 5 in the New York SMA. All 49 speeding incidents occurred between Nov. 2009 and April 2010.

This year, the speed limits went into effect on Nov. 1 in areas between Brunswick, Ga. and Rhode Island, and on Nov. 15 from Brunswick to St. Augustine, Fla., according to Bales-Sherrod.

Once the foundation of the New England whaling industry, only 350-400 North Atlantic right whales have survived into the 21st century. Although the precise number of right whales struck by ships every year is unknown, these collisions are widely acknowledged to be major threats to their survival as a species. Scientific research cited by NOAA suggests that while one or two right whales hit by ships are found every year, there are likey more casualties that humans never see.

In 2008, the Bush administration enacted the speed limit law, called the Right Whale Ship Strike Reduction Rule [PDF], following two years of delays credited by some at the time -- including Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, as well as Olympia Snowe of Maine -- to pressure from the maritime shipping industry. The regulations will expire at the end of 2013, unless NOAA opts to re-issue them.

"It seems, at the anecdotal level, that we're seeing a reduction in ship strikes," says Michael Moore, a senior biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Moore is often called in to analyze the corpses of marine mammals that wash ashore along the Eastern Seaboard, including right whales. The animals sometimes have gashes or scars from ship impacts, although that may not be the direct cause of death in every case.

Since the speed limits came into effect, "my gut is that things have improved," Moore says. "It would need another couple of years, and a decent statistical analysis, to get beyond the anecdotal level."

Bales-Sherrod says that NOAA is beginning to gather data on whether the speed limits are reducing whale-vessel collisions."

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