WASHINGTON - May 31 - The U.S. Coast Guard is proposing changes in shipping routes from Florida to Boston in an effort to prevent collisions with critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Despite this course realignment plan, the Coast Guard has yet to act on speed restrictions and other safety measures in right whale migratory areas, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Ship strikes are the largest known cause of death for the North Atlantic right whale, considered one of the planet’s most endangered species with less than 300 animals left in existence. In the past year, five percent of the total female breeding population has been killed, as well as two near term calves.
In a Federal Register notice posted on May 24, 2006, the Coast Guard recommended establishing:
• “Precautionary areas” at the entrance to the ports of Jacksonville and Fernandina Beach, FL, and Brunswick, GA, as well as at the entrance to Cape Cod Canal and in the vicinity of New Inlet, MA. According to the notice, a precautionary area means a routing measure “where vessels must navigate with particular caution” and subject to recommended traffic directions;
• “Two-way routes” for the ports of Jacksonville, Fernandina Beach and Brunswick (six per port) and in Cape Cod Bay to the ports of Boston and Provincetown, MA, and the entrance to Cape Cod Canal (three each), as well as one two-way recommended track from the Cape Cod Canal entrance to Provincetown. Two-way routes limit traffic lanes in order to provide “safe passage of ships through waters where navigation is difficult or dangerous”; and
• A new “Traffic Separation Scheme” for the western portion of the approach to Boston Harbor so as to widen the separation of opposing streams of traffic.
“This is a welcome first step for the Coast Guard but if traffic routing alone is insufficient to save the right whale from ship strikes then this may be a colossal waste of time,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former federal biologist whose organization is also pushing for adoption of long-stalled comprehensive strategy by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that would also require reduced ship speeds and channel restrictions in sensitive calving and migratory areas.
The Coast Guard has rebuffed earlier efforts by NOAA to set speed limits or implement emergency protective measures on a timely basis during the right whale migration along the Eastern Seaboard. This past January, the Coast Guard also rejected an emergency petition by PEER to set up safety zones following the death of a right whale calf by ship strike off the Florida coast.
“The question is whether the remaining right whale population will live long enough to benefit from effective federal intervention,” added Bennett.