Sunday, March 28, 2010

Right Whales Can't Get A Break

There are only 300-400 north atlantic right whale left on earth. They are one of the most critically endangered marine species in the oceans.

Commercial whaling exacted a costly toll on the whales' population. The right whales have an incredibly thick layer of blubber that makes them float after death - they became the "right whale" to hunt. For the past thirty years, one of the leading causes of death for right whales have been ship strikes. Whales may be big, but they are no match against a large ship.

So in 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a United States Department of Commerce agency, proposed a reduction in ship speed in areas off the eastern seaboard where whale strikes were common and right whales were prevalent. They did this because 95% of ships notified of right whales in their lanes did not slow down. This suggestion came after several right whale deaths from ship strikes. It took three years of public commentary before the policy was put forth to the White House for approval.

Ship companies, port authorities, the Navy, whale watching agencies all opposed the proposal. Turns out preserving critically endangered species is far less important than getting to your destination on time. And I suppose there are other whale species that whale watchers can enjoy! The Greater Port Authority argued that since ship strikes only accounted for less than 50% of right whale deaths (that's 17 dead whales in 4 years, including six breeding females) that they should not be held at all accountable. Still, it isn't as if NOAA was asking them to stop, they were asking them to slow down. A reasonable request, it seems, when you are trying not to let an entire species go extinct.

It took another two years before the White House approved the speed reduction.

Turns out that mandating a required slow down means nothing if none of our authorities enforce the law. A recent article reports that in South Carolina, for example, the US Coast Guard, federal and state wildlife officers refuse to enforce the law. Even though there are ships going twice the suggested reduced speed, since the law went into effect in 2008/2009, no one has been penalized. There are six ongoing investigations, but none so far have resulted in charges or penalties.

We have a species on the brink of extinction, making every single individual vital to the preservation of the species. And we know that between 30-45% of right whale strikes are from ships (and I agree with the opposition's concern about smaller ships that can also severely injure or kill a whale). We know that these strikes occur within a few dozen miles from the shore. We know that they are more likely to occur during the migration and calving season. Yet when presented with a reasonable solution to a serious problem, not only do those with the monetary interests balk at such a suggestion, those with the right to enforce these rules do nothing.

I shouldn't be surprised. If the sushi industry can fish a species into extinction for nothing more than a momentary gustatory pleasure, why wouldn't the shipping industry strike a species into extinction for nothing more than getting somewhere a little faster.

It's still disappointing.


Retrieverman said...

You need to get Sea of Slaughter.

The Basques called this species the sarda or sardak baleac.

Of the four species of right whale, my favorite is the Arctic right whale or bowhead.

Those animals may live over 100 years. Ancient walrus ivory spears from aboriginal whalers have been found in them, and recently, a specimen was found with a harpoon point that was manufactured in New Bedford, Massachusetts (the form US whaling capital) in the 1890s. I heard about this relatively recently, so this animal would have to have been at least 110 years old.

It is remarkable that these animals have survived these attacks. Normally, cetaceans are very susceptible infections if they are injured by objects that came from land. Their immune systems aren't adapted to the land-based bacteria.

Life With Dogs said...

It's seriously disheartening. :(