WASHINGTON, DC, August 26, 2008 (ENS) - Large ships traveling along the east coast of the United States would have to slow to 10 knots in designated areas used by endangered North Atlantic right whales under a federal government proposal issued Tuesday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the final environmental impact statement for the Ship Strike Reduction Rule issued by the NOAA Fisheries Service aims to limit the number of the endangered whales injured or killed by collisions with large ships.
The final EIS contains six alternatives, including NOAA's preferred alternative that would require a vessel speed restriction of 10 knots or less in areas along the U.S. east coast where the whales migrate, feed and bear their young.
The agency's preferred alternative also includes a five year sunset provision to allow for further consideration of ongoing scientific research.
"NOAA is looking forward to taking a significant step in our efforts to protect right whales," said NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr. "Our scientific analysis shows that a 10-knot speed limit in critical areas will significantly reduce the threat to these endangered marine mammals."
Until September 29, the agency is accepting public comment on the EIS, which is one of the final steps in the process of implementing a final rule.
Whale conservationists lost no time in criticizing NOAA's preferred alternative.
Vicki Cornish, vice president for marine wildlife conservation with the Ocean Conservancy, said in a statement Tuesday, "The measures outlined in the preferred alternative represent a weakening of the regulations proposed by the Bush administration.
"Of primary concern is the government's plan to have final regulations go away after five years unless additional rulemaking is completed. This 'sunset provision' would come at a time when shipping traffic is expected to dramatically increase on the East Coast," Cornish said.
Conservationists and government scientists agree on one thing - there are only about 300 North Atlantic right whales remaining and they are among the most endangered whales in the world. The are not now the target of whale hunters due to a global moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission in 1986.
Slow moving right whales are highly vulnerable to ship collisions, since their migration route crosses major east coast shipping lanes.
NOAA's proposed speed limit of 10-knots, approximately 11.5 miles per hour, would apply to right whale feeding grounds along the coast in the northeastern United States and to calving grounds near the southeastern United States, where the whales spend most of their time.
In the mid-Atlantic area where right whales migrate, the 10-knot speed restrictions would extend out to 20 nautical miles around the major ports. This provision reduces the distance from the 30 miles from shore NOAA originally proposed after the World Shipping Council objected.
NOAA's Fisheries Service researchers report that 83 percent of right whale sightings in the mid-Atlantic were within 20 nautical miles of shore, NOAA said Tuesday.
The preferred alternative also would establish temporary voluntary speed limits in other areas when an aggregation of three or more right whales is confirmed.
The World Shipping Council has lobbied the Bush administration to refrain from imposing a speed limit, saying, "Large commercial ships are not a primary cause of unnatural mortality of Atlantic right whales."
NOAA first proposed the 10 knot speed limit for shipping along the eastern seaboard on June 26, 2006. But since that public comment period ended in October 2006, the plan has been stalled by the White House Office of Management and Budget long past the normal 90 day review period.
"The industry is not opposing all regulation," the WSC says in a policy statement on its website, "only those parts of the proposed regulation where the scientific justification is lacking."
"The industry's objection is that there is no scientific basis in the record of this rulemaking for imposing a 10-knot speed restriction within 30 nautical miles (nm) of East Coast ports in the entire mid-Atlantic range from New York to Savannah, Georgia. This is the coastal range where the science is the weakest and the economic impact is the greatest," the WSC says.
"The bottom line is that this critically endangered species needs our help," said NOAA Administrator Lautenbacher. "The preferred alternative is a balanced approach grounded in science that would significantly enhance our ability to protect right whales, but it would also take into account concerns about the safety of ship crews and the impact on an important segment of our economy."
But Cornish is not satisfied with the balance of NOAA's preferred alternative, in part because it is not the final rule.
"The environmental impact statement provides a preview of the measures that will be in the final regulations for the shipping industry to follow, but it does not tell us when the final regulations will actually be published," she said. "Until the final rule is published, there continues to be no protections in place for right whales."
"While the Bush administration has stalled the rule for well over a year, at least two endangered North Atlantic right whales have been struck by ships," said Cornish, "yet still today, we continue to wait for final regulations to protect an endangered species from its greatest threat."
To read and comment on the final environmental impact statement for the Ship Strike Reduction Rule, click here.
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