June 6, 2006 – The details of the deaths are chilling: one body was found floating off the coast of Virginia, entangled in fishing gear; another female, her vertebra broken, washed up on a Massachusetts beach; and still another, pregnant, was found miles away from where she had been killed in the Chesapeake Bay.
Ship strikes are the largest known cause of death for the North Atlantic right whale, an endangered species that migrates seasonally in coastal waters from Boston to Florida. From 1975 to 2002, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recorded 38 strikings of right whales by seaborne vessels.
Right whales, which average 50 feet in length and have light-colored growths on their heads called "callosities," were originally decimated by hunting. By the 18th century, the right whale was already one of the Northeastâ€™s "rarest" animals. Although the species has been protected since 1937, its population has never recovered.
"It was named the â€˜rightâ€™ whale by whalers because when it was dead, it floated in the water and was easy to bring back to shore," said Kyla Bennett, director of the New England branch of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). "So it was the right whale to kill."
In order for the right whaleâ€™s current population of around 300 to avoid extinction, NMFS has said, the species cannot withstand any more human-induced deaths, rendering known and presumed killings over the last several years all the more devastating. Although it is unclear how many of the whales are killed by ships because many collisions go unreported, between February 2004 and May 2005, eight right whales were killed, three of which were pregnant.
"If this is all theyâ€™re planning on doing, this species is going to go extinct â€“ if not in my lifetime, then in my childrenâ€™s lifetime."
So when the US Coast Guard introduced a long-awaited Port Access Route Study in February proposing to re-route commercial ships to prevent collisions with right whales, many animal-rights and environmental groups cheered. The Coast Guard reopened the study â€“ one part of a wider NFMS right whale-protection strategy â€“ for public comment from May 24 to June 5. The agency will consider public input before making a final decision on the regulation.
But while environmental groups have hailed the proposal as a step in the right direction, they are still admonishing the Coast Guard and the NMFS, which enforces the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, for dragging their feet on passing strong regulations to protect the right whale.
"Itâ€™s one step, but itâ€™s not enough," Bennett said. "If this is all theyâ€™re planning on doing, this species is going to go extinct â€“ if not in my lifetime, then in my childrenâ€™s lifetime."
Currently, NMFSâ€™s right whale ship-reduction program includes aerial surveys to report whale locations, a Mandatory Ship Reporting system that provides information to mariners entering whale habitats, and collaboration with the Coast Guard to issue notices to mariners regarding ship strikes.
Between February 2004 and May 2005, eight right whales were killed by ship strikes, three of which were pregnant.
Despite these measures, advocacy groups have long lobbied NMFS to use its authority to more effectively protect the whales by issuing speed restrictions. Defenders of Wildlife, the Ocean Conservancy and the Humane Society of the United States have filed a lawsuit against NFMS and the Coast Guard asking the court to force the agencies to regulate speeds and designate routes for ships in right whale habitats. The suit is still pending.
Giving groups a glimmer of hope in 2004, NMFS announced that it was considering speed restrictions on vessels and collaborating with the Coast Guard, under mandate from Congress to create new shipping routes. But even with the Port Access Route Study, organizations working to save the right whale have found it difficult to get NFMS to act on its strategy.
Although military vessels account for the largest percentage of ship strikes, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard said it is unclear if they will be required to follow the re-routing program or be subject to any future speed restrictions.
NFMS would not grant The NewStandard an interview for this article.
According to Bennett, the protection of the right whale is stuck in a political quagmire.
"You canâ€™t stop people from fishing, and you canâ€™t tell them to stop shipping," Bennett said. "The answer lies somewhere between an outright ban on these two activities and allowing these two activities to continue but having a lot of caution for where the whales are."
NFMSâ€™s proposed regulations would impose seasonal speed restrictions to follow the whaleâ€™s migratory patterns, and would require ships to slow to 10â€“14 knots in whale habitats. But both the Coast Guard and the shipping industry have opposed the speed restrictions.
Although military vessels account for the largest percentage of ship strikes, it is unclear if they will be be subject to any future speed restrictions.
"Thatâ€™s a volatile issue," George Detweiler, a spokesperson for the Coast Guardâ€™s Office of Navigation Systems, told TNS. "I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s in our authority to issue speed restrictions to protect endangered species."
Environmental groups say that pressure from the shipping industry has caused NFMS to stall on speed restrictions.
"For the shipping industry, time equals money," Bennett said.
The World Shipping Council, an association of over 40 international ocean carriers that transports 93 percent of the USâ€™s imports and exports, issued comments in response to NFMSâ€™s proposed strategy in 2004, stating: "We also have concerns regarding the potential costs associated with the proposed speed-reduction measures."
The Council would not grant an interview to TNS.
NFMS estimates that the speed restrictions would result in an additional 1 to 1.25 hours on a one-way journey. The Council predicted speed restrictions would create "significant costs" to the industry.
According to a 2002 study by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), annual operating costs for the shipping industry calling to port in Bostonâ€™s northern approach will increase $227,000 per year if speed restrictions were enforced at 10 knots over 20 nautical miles (nm) for 30 days of the year. The shipping industry would incur an additional $4,771,000 per year for speed restrictions of 10 knots over 25 nm when approaching the New York/New Jersey port for 60 days of the year.
Bennett of PEER, however, is not swayed by the industryâ€™s financial concerns. Instead, she argues that it is the NFMSâ€™s and the Coast Guardâ€™s responsibility to uphold the ESA and MMPA.
"We believe that whatâ€™s happening [at sea] is against the law," Bennett said.
But while PEER and others are using a legal perspective to protect the right whale, WHOI biology research specialist Michael Moore, with WHOI, said that committing to saving the species from extinction may come down to a value judgment.
"What do we value in the Endangered Species Act?" Moore said. "Is it something that we should even care about? I think the answer is yes. Extinction is forever. There are plenty of reasons that create extinction other than human impacts. Human impacts should be mitigated if at all possible."