Monday, January 23, 2012

{Press} Crackdown on high seas speeders aims to save right whales

Canada.com | Randy Boswell, January 17, 2012

"In a bid to protect Canada's most endangered marine mammal, U.S. officials have carried out a crackdown on speeding ships that threaten to strike North Atlantic right whales along their annual migration route between the Bay of Fundy and waters off the coast of Florida.

NOAA, the Washington, D.C.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has announced the resolution of three cases involving large commercial vessels that violated speed limits in known right whale habitats between New York City and Mayport, Florida.

The owner of a German cargo ship agreed to pay 16 separate fines totalling $92,000 U.S. for speeding violations near Mayport. The operators of the M/V Vega Sachsen were found to have repeatedly violated provisions of the U.S Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act between December 2009 and April 2010.

Two other ship owners agreed to pay their fines as well, and six more are still facing charges of breaking the 10-knot speed limit imposed in 2008 in areas identified as right whale migration corridors or calving areas.

The ships have been clocked at up to 18 knots and have been slapped with $5,750 tickets for each infraction. NOAA researchers have concluded that ship speed is a clear "predictor of death" when vessels and whales collide.

"The likelihood of a whale fatality due to ship strike increases from around 45 per cent to 75 per cent when vessel speed increases from 10 to 14 knots," NOAA told Postmedia News in an emailed statement on Tuesday. "Chance of death at 17 knots was 90 per cent."

The statement also noted that "the death of even one whale can be devastating to the right whale population; in fact, NOAA Fisheries estimates that a female right whale will need to give birth to four healthy calves over her lifetime to successfully replace herself within the population."

Experts believe there are fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales living today off the East Coast of North America, where they spend the summer and fall feeding and breeding in the Gulf of Maine, including the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

The rest of the year is spent migrating towards or congregating at a well-known birthing site near Florida and other habitats in Atlantic waters in the U.S. southeast.

Although the population history of the species is not entirely clear, most biologists believe a once-robust population of right whales was reduced to its current, vulnerable state by overzealous, oil-seeking whalers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The species was dubbed the "right" whale because its slow movements in shallow, nearshore waters made it the "right" target for harvesting.

Today, entanglements in fishing nets and ship strikes by speeding vessels — which can collide with animals before they are able to react — are the leading causes of death and injury to right whales, which can weigh up to 110 tonnes and reach lengths beyond 18 metres.

In Canada, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans also has taken steps to protect right whales by identifying no-go zones at certain times of the year and imposing strict speed limits in other areas in and around the Bay of Fundy.

U.S. and Canadian officials have also collaborated with fishermen, scientists and wildlife groups to reduce the entanglement of right whales in fishing gear.

rboswell@postmedia.com"

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