Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XIV No. 4 - October 2005

Right or Wrong?

By William Rossiter

North Atlantic right whales: save them or not? We still have that choice, but recent government decisions show a reluctance to make it. Why? From the top down it appears the US government might want to save right whales, but only if the military, commerce and industry don't have to pay a price. Here's a sample of recent official decisions suggesting at best that orders to delay are coming from above.

Delay: NMFS will prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for their right whale ship strike reduction strategy. The strategy was first proposed in June 2004, An Environmental Assessment (EA) was started, ostensibly the cheaper solution in case the EA could determine that there would be no "significant impact" from the strategy. A year later the EA instead found there would be impact, so an EIS will be begun, prepared by outside contractors, and ambitiously scheduled for public review by year's end. For copies of the draft EA, related Economic Analysis, and "Understanding the NEPA process" see: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/shipstrike/.

Dismay: In January the Marine Mammal Commission asked NMFS for "emergency rules . . . aimed at reducing ship strikes." In May a coalition of major animal and environmental protection organizations petitioned NOAA "to initiate an emergency rulemaking," adding that "The future of the North Atlantic right whale depends on the actions of the National Marine Fisheries Service, making it critical for the agency to respond at once with interim measures until permanent solutions are enacted. What the government is being asked to do is entirely feasible, and we are confounded by their continued resistance to take prompt action to save this species, as is certainly their legal and moral obligation." The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility noted in June that: "The question is whether NOAA and its parent agency, the Department of Commerce, are so cowed by political pressure that they are incapable of effectively safeguarding marine life."

Delay: NMFS has responded to the Marine Mammal Commission request by declaring that, because even emergency regulations must plod through a "comparable" time for "environmental analysis, including economic effects", NMFS "decided not to pursue emergency rulemaking at this time so that we may direct our full energies to proceed as quickly as possible with analysis and rulemaking to implement the comprehensive ship strike strategy. If we can stay on target, emergency rulemaking should not be necessary so long as we publish the above rules in a timely manner." See above.

Deflection: NMFS also has dismissed the need for an interagency summit to discuss ship strike reductions, because "most agencies believe they are working to the best of their ability, within their respective mandates, to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of a vessel strike." Most agencies independently focused on voluntary 12 knot limits, including federal vessels, when human or national security were not compromised. See below.

Rejection: The U.S. Coast Guard rejected NMFS's May request for more information being passed to mariners to attempt to reduce ship strikes, including specific speed restrictions in right whale areas. Besides objecting to certain words, the Coast Guard did not want any implication of their "endorsement of speed restrictions" by advising 12 knot limits. They also believed that "interagency consultations are necessary to develop a U.S. government position regarding vessel speed or routing regulations. These measures have potential impacts on national security, compliance with international law, and other policy interests that must be considered along with recovery of right whales."

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility criticized the Coast Guard's position, stating: "The real message from Admiral Collins is that the Coast Guard leadership places protecting its bureaucratic turf above protecting the world's threatened natural resources."

Default: NMFS in August directed the National Weather Service and the National Ocean Service to issue ship speed advisories using mariner communication media under their control (e.g., weather radio, Coast Pilots, charts and web sites) to facilitate the distribution of the speed advisory to the public. These will reach only a small fraction of the mariners that Coast Guard advisories would reach.

Disgust: In response to all of the above, and years of frustrating effort, sixteen of the world's leading experts on the North Atlantic right whale called for "interim emergency measures to reduce shipping and fishing mortality in right whales" in a fast-tracked article in the July 22 issue of Science. Their message was that management efforts remain woefully inadequate. With customary professional reserve they kept to the facts, startlingly precise because of decades of effort to know and follow every living right whale: Within the last 18 months eight right whales are known to have died. Three of the dead had near-term fetuses. Four of the six dead females were just starting to bear calves; with a lifetime average of 5.25 calves their deaths prevented up to 21 additions to the population.

While causes of some deaths could not be determined, at least four definitely died because of humans. One was killed by fishing gear, three were killed by ships. Another probably was. "This is at least 2.9 times the average annual mortality rate, and particularly this number of reproductive females, in such a short period, is unprecedented in 25 years of study of the species. The rate of loss is greater than the recent increase in birth rate." The scientists noted that NMFS's efforts to minimize ship strikes through mandatory ship location reporting, extensive aerial survey efforts and mariner education "has not led to a reduction in ship strike mortalities," and fishing gear entanglement solutions of selective area closures and gear modifications have not reduced entanglement rates or matched the seasonal movements of right whales. The scientists recommended speed reductions and alternate routes, as did the still delayed June 2004 NMFS Proposed Rule.

When scientists make a statement like the following there should be no doubt that there is a very real problem that requires immediate action: "Given the slow speed of the regulatory process, interim emergency measures to reduce shipping and fishing mortality in right whales should be implemented immediately. Delays in implementation would be ignoring both scientific and legal mandates and could consign North Atlantic right whales to extinction."

So what if right whales become extinct? We had best accept that, to many, that is a valid question. Many species hover on the brink of extinction, even as Representative Pombo leads the Congress in a move to gut the Endangered Species Act. Anyone concerned with right whales, or any other vulnerable species, must accept that many people now in authority truly do not accept the value of any one species but Man, and measure everything by its cost to human societies today, not generations from now. Many people do not accept the connections between "them" and "us", species and habitats, biodiversity itself. A Gallup poll recently found that 54 percent of the US population does not believe in evolution. Beyond scientific ignorance, this supports an absolute, fundamental belief that most of the facts and arguments for saving right whales, or anything else, simply don't matter.

Right whale issues and much else in this Whales Alive! share a common theme, that evidence for issues needing solutions is being ignored, hard won solutions are being weakened, decisions are being based on short term, cost free results, and that profit rules. There may be value in recognizing that this is not the first extreme swing of the pendulum:

Thomas Jefferson in 1798 lamented that: "A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt. . . If the game runs sometime against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake." Jefferson's issues didn't involve extinctions and global change, but he reminds us that the pendulum will swing back, hopefully in time.

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium will hold its Annual Meeting on 2-3 November, at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts. Most of the expert authors of the Science article will be there, along with almost everyone working to save right whales. As a member, CSI is looking forward to a lively discussion about the role of government in species survival, and what to do in spite of them. Consortium members make every effort to communicate with the public, in particular: Right Whale News is a resource CSI recommends to everyone wanting perspective and detail on the species, particularly for these complex issues. Current and back issues are available at http://www.graysreef.nos.noaa.gov/rightwhalenews.html.

In other right whale news:

A passive acoustic system designed to locate noisy right whales should be in operation within three years. Under the leadership of Dr. Christopher Clark of Cornell University, the system is a whale sized version of the most sophisticated baby monitoring system you can imagine, with independent hydrophones mounted off the sea floor, linked electronically in an array with a computer programmed to distinguish the various sounds right whales make, calculate the position of noisy whales from what each hydrophone hears, and signal humans to the presence of whales. Right whales communicate with sound, perhaps less frequently than some other species, and mothers with calves tend to stay quiet to avoid predators, but NMFS and many others believe the potential for reducing ship strikes could be as high as 75 percent. But first the shipping and fishing interests must be convinced the system works, because they don't want to waste time or money on false alarms. If rules associated with whale alerts require vessels to alter course or speed, the operators want to know there is really something there to avoid. As noted above, current strategies in the US do not seem to work, although it must be said that no one knows how many whales are missed, perhaps saved because of the strategies. All we know is that too many whales are not being missed.

Orcas attacked right whales east of Nantucket, Massachusetts in July. 10 to 12 orcas were documented attacking 4 or 5 tightly clustered right whales, which were slamming the water with their flukes in defense. Two male orcas appeared to lead their pod's coordinated attack. They may have been only harassing the whales, as most experts doubt that even orcas could kill an adult right whale, particularly in a defensive group. Perhaps, because "rowdy" groups of right whales are known to be noisy, the orcas objected to the clamor.

Right whale #2425 was relocated near Cape Cod's Stellwagen Bank in early September, apparently near death. The severely injured 11-year-old had been struck by a boat off Georgia in March, leaving several feet of her left fluke dangling. Along with infection, perhaps indicated by her unhealthily gray skin, her reduced swimming speed had allowed whale lice to spread over her body.

As you consider the months of suffering this lone whale has endured, know that five percent of all known reproductively active right whale females in the North Atlantic have been killed by human activity in the past eleven months, and your government has decided interim emergency measures are not needed.

At least Calvin has brought good news! The 13-year-old right whale, orphaned at eight months while still nursing, returned in August to the Bay of Fundy with a calf! Her mother, Delilah, had been killed by a ship in 1992, and experts feared she wouldn't learn the skills to survive, much less rear a child. Delilah's death initiated the efforts to reduce ship strikes, leading in 1993 to a system of rerouting vessels to avoid right whales, reducing ship strikes by as much as 90 percent . . . in Canadian waters.

Go to next article: Fulcrum, An Entangled Humpback or: Table of Contents.

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