A new route to saving right whales

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New shipping lanes for some East Coast ports aim to reduce collisions between whales and ships

New shipping lanes for some East Coast ports aim to reduce collisions between whales and ships

Rerouting ships into and out of some East Coast ports is expected to detour traffic around gathering places for right whales and reduce the number of collisions between ships and the endangered mammals.

The International Maritime Organization in December adopted a resolution moving the shipping lanes into and out of Boston Harbor from a straight line to an elbow configuration in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, where over the last 25 years 255,000 right, humpback, fin and minke whales have been reported. The right whales congregate in three areas along the banks, and the current ship lane runs right through the middle of one of those areas.

“We would see a significant reduction in strikes to the Atlantic right whale and to [the other] whales, as well,” says Greg Silber, National Marine Fisheries Service recovery coordinator for endangered whales. Silber says the right whales gather on the banks to chow on copepods, small crustaceans that mass there in huge numbers.

This change, which moves the shipping lane north about six miles at the crook of the elbow, should reduce the risk of ships hitting right whales by as much as 58 percent and other whales by 81 percent, says David Wiley, the sanctuary researcher who first proposed moving the lanes. More than 200 large commercial ships a month use the shipping lanes.

“We’ve documented a number of whale carcasses in that area, with the cause of death attributable to a ship strike,” Wiley says. “The goal of this project was to identify a corridor through the sanctuary where the density of whales is low.” He says they did this by plotting on a chart all reported whale sightings on Massachusetts Bay over the past 25 years.

The population of North Atlantic rights has dwindled to between 300 and 350, and without a significant reduction in right whale mortality, the species likely is to be extinct within 200 years, Wiley says.

In addition to the IMO action, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in mid-November urged ship captains to use new recommended routes when they enter or leave the Florida ports of Jacksonville and Fernandina, as well as Brunswick, Ga., and Cape Cod (Mass.) Bay. These routes divert ships from right whale feeding grounds off Cape Cod and from waters off Florida and Georgia where they give birth to their calves, Wiley says. Typically these routes take traffic offshore and away from coastal waters where the whales congregate, he says.

“Mariners need to be aware of these voluntary routes before the winter calving season when pregnant females and females with calves migrate to waters off of Florida and Georgia,” says NMFS assistant administrator Bill Hogarth. “With a population so low, even one whale death can set back recovery efforts dramatically.”

The Coast Guard is alerting to these recommended routes in the Local Notices to Mariners. The routes can be found on updated Electronic Navigational Charts of Massachusetts Bay, which can be downloaded at www.noaa.gov/ charts.html.

NMFS also hopes to have speed limits in place by next summer around major East Coast ports for vessels 65 feet and larger. The fisheries service is proposing a 10-knot speed zone extending between 30 and 80 nautical miles seaward of ports from Jacksonville to Boston at times of the year when right whales are nearby.

Wiley says the last piece of the puzzle is to prevent whale entanglement in commercial fishing gear. Wiley says one source of entanglement — floating lines run between fish traps — could be eliminated by requiring the use of sinking lines between traps. In fact, Massachusetts was set to make floating lines illegal in its waters beginning Jan. 1, he says.