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Feds to Keep Right Whale Ship Strike Rules in Place
12/06/2013   Reported By: Keith Shortall

The National Marine Fisheries Service today announced that it will keep rules in place aimed at protecting right whales from ship strikes. The rules, adopted five years ago, were set to expire this coming Monday, but as Keith Shortall reports, regulators say they are clearly having some effect on reducing injuries and deaths in the fragile whale population.

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The rule, adopted in late 2008, requires large ships, over 65-feet long, to reduce speeds in certain areas of the Atlantic Coast where right whales are known to breed and feed. Federal scientists say that over the previous 20 years, there had been an average of one right whale death per year attributed to ship strikes.

That number has declined in the past five years. "There have been no vessel strikes killing whales in that period in which the rule was in effect," says Gregory Silber, the coordinator of recovery activities for endangered whales with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Silber says during the past five years his office has also done computer modeling, "and found that the probablility of reduction of fatal ship strikes was on the order of 80 to 90 percent."

Silber says that's why NMFS has decided to continue the rule, which had been scheduled to sunset on Monday. The news comes as a relief to whale conservationists.

"It's a huge deal for us, for the organization, but it's a much bigger deal for right whales that will actually benefit from the rule. And it's a means to enable them to recover," says Regina Asmutis Silvia, executive director of the North American office of the non-profit group, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, located in Plymouth, Massachussetts.

She says there are now fewer that 500 right whales left, though there are recent signs of a slight recovery. And she says that's why its critical that the ship strike rule be continued.

"The overall benefit for all species, I think, is something that we need to look at," she says, "but the benefit specifically for right whales, I think, we can fairly easily say that it really is making a difference."

"We're disappointed," says Brian Wood-Thomas, vice president of the World Shipping Council, which respresents most of the shipping interests affected by the ship strike rule. He says his organization does not believe that reducing speeds to under 10 knots is the most effective way of minimizing harm to whales.

"There's much higher certainty on, and agreement across the scientific community, that the best way to protect the right whale population is to avoid routing where the whales are known to be," he says.

Wood-Thomas says the World Shipping Council had requested that NMFS impose another sunset on the rule, and in the meantime keep studying its effectiveness for a period of a few years.

The speed restrictions to not apply to the shipping waters off the coast of Maine, where marine researchers say they have spotted only one right whale this fall.


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