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Plan to safeguard whales stirs debate

Marine community split over call for seasonal speed limits and other protective measures

Marine community split over call for seasonal speed limits and other protective measures

Powerful and majestic, the behemoth’s dance is breathtaking to watch. Breaking the surface, the right whale’s blow holes spew a “V” of mist 20 feet in the air. Then breaching, 70 tons of raw yet graceful power explode from the water — first the enormous grey head mottled with white, then the tail arched high as the leviathan begins its descent.

“It’s always awe-inspiring to me,” says Amy Knowlton, senior right-whale researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Knowlton has been studying how proposed speed restrictions for large yachts and ships could reduce right whale deaths from ship strikes in waters around East Coast ports.

“I truly think that this is the most important rulemaking for right whales since any of the rulemaking began,” says Knowlton.

She believes slowing large vessels in areas where right whales are known to be at certain times of year — together with restrictions on fishing gear that entangles whales — are vital to the species’ survival.

The population of North Atlantic right whales has dwindled to 350, says Knowlton. If they continue to die in collisions with vessels and entanglements with fishing gear, they will be extinct in 200 years, she says.

On June 23, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its proposal for a speed restriction of 10 knots or less during certain times in each of three major regions along the East Coast (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast). The restrictions would apply to vessels 65 feet and larger (except for federal agency vessels) and would include many large yachts.

Besides the seasonal restrictions, the rule proposes a speed limit of 10 knots for 15 days or longer to protect whales that appear at times and in places when the seasonal measures are not in effect.

The New England Aquarium reports that ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear are the most common causes of death for right whales, accounting for 33 (46 percent) of the 71 known right whale deaths since 1970. NOAA says studies estimate there were two right whale deaths a year from ship strikes or fishing gear entanglements between 1997 and 2001. “The overall mortality rate increased between 1980 and 1998 to a level of at least four percent per year, a rate at which the survival of this species is not sustainable,” the agency said.

Here is the proposed regulation:

• In the Southeast, the speed restrictions would apply from Nov. 15 to April 15 in coastal waters landward of 80°51.6’ longitude from north of Brunswick, Ga. to south of Jacksonville, Fla. — the right whales’ calving grounds.

• In the mid-coast region, the restrictions would apply from Nov. 1 to April 30 in waters up to 30 nautical miles off the ports of New York and New Jersey; Delaware Bay (Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del.); the entrance to Chesapeake Bay (Hampton Roads and Baltimore); Morehead City and Beaufort, N.C.; Wilmington, N.C.; Georgetown, S.C.; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and the mouth of Block Island Sound.

• In the Northeast, restrictions would apply from Jan. 1 to May 15 through all of Cape Cod Bay; from March 1 to April 30 in a box about 50 nautical miles by 50 nautical miles to the north and east of Cape Cod, Mass., and from April 1 to July 31 in the Great South Channel.

• Besides these seasonal restrictions, the National Marine Fisheries Service could apply temporary speed restrictions in 15-day increments wherever three or more right whales are spotted, or if it’s in a traffic separation scheme near a port, in a designated shipping lane or within the 30-nautical-mile area extending seaward from a mid-Atlantic port one whale spotting could trigger temporary speed restrictions.

Knowlton says the right whale is particularly vulnerable to run-ins with vessels converging on ports because they migrate along the coast, often hanging in close to shore — sometimes as close as the surf line.

NOAA was inviting comment on the proposals through Aug. 23. Michael Glasfeld, whose Bay State Cruises operates ferries from Boston to Provincetown on Cape Cod Bay, is concerned. His slow ferry runs the route at 16 knots, his fast ferry at 30 knots. He says he is pleased the seasonal speed restrictions on Cape Cod Bay would be lifted May 15, which is when his Boston-to-Provincetown ferry service opens.

Yet he is worried about temporary speed restrictions, which could be imposed anytime, anyplace when three or more whales are spotted. Running at 30 knots, the fast ferry trip takes an hour and a half. At 10 knots, it increases to 2 1/2 hours. Glasfeld says he can’t absorb the loss of business from running at one-third speed for 15 days.

“I can’t give away a ticket on the slow ferry,” he says. He’s afraid he won’t be able to give away a ticket on a slowed-down fast ferry, either.

He also is wary of what he calls “regulatory creep.” Extending just two weeks to the seasonal speed restrictions on Cape Cod Bay in May would force the ferry out of service, he says. “As it stands right now, we’re OK,” he says. “But regulatory creep is as natural as the sunrise.”

Shippers also are affected. “There’s resistance,” Knowlton acknowledges. “They just don’t like the concept of slowing down.” She says ships engaged in coastwise navigation, especially, complain of the time crunch that slower speeds and longer trips will cause.

The speed restrictions have been under study for eight years, and now that the Atlantic right whale is on the radar screen other regulatory proposals may follow, as Glasfeld fears. The National Marine Fisheries Service is working on a fishing gear rule that — initially — could require lobstermen to replace floating horizontal ground lines that with lines fixed to the sea floor so they don’t entangle whales. These horizontal lines are used to anchor pots — as many as 40 per line. The fisheries service also is looking at requiring weak links in gill nets so that if a whale becomes entangled it can break loose.

Knowlton says restrictions on smaller boats also may be necessary in calving grounds off Florida and Georgia, because baby whales are vulnerable to serious injury in collisions with even small boats.

Last January, an administrative law judge required developers of Cumberland Harbour, a proposed high-end residential community in St. Marys, Ga., to consider how its two marinas and three public docks — with slips for 800 boats — might affect right whales’ calving grounds.

A year ago March, a 43-foot yacht motoring at 20 knots ran over an 11-year-old female right whale seven miles off Cumberland Island, Ga., and nearly severed its tail. The 40-foot whale is believed to have subsequently died.

Current rules require all boats to stay at least 500 yards away from whales to prevent inadvertent injury.

“If we don’t reduce mortality, within 200 years [right whales] could be extinct,” Knowlton says. “They deserve a fighting chance to do well.”