Activists seek rules to prevent whale collisions

Feds eye more stringent regs on East Coast; environmentalists call for changes on West Coast

Posted: Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Environmentalists looking to protect whales from collisions with ships in Alaska and on the West Coast hope to import proposed East Coast restrictions.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking that calls for tighter restrictions on vessels to reduce ship strikes on the North Atlantic right whale along the East Coast. The notice was published in the Federal Register June 1. NOAA will take comments until Aug. 2.

Environmentalists say NOAA should issue a rule that applies to the coasts off Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington because of problems with whale strikes.

"We're saying we need to look at a similar strategy for the West," said Teri Shore of Bluewater Network in San Francisco, Calif.

Environmentalists want similar speed and routing restrictions, and aerial surveys that NOAA is proposing for the East Coast, Shore said.

The cruise ship industry is aware of NOAA's notice, but sees it as an East Coast issue for now, officials said Monday.

"They (company officials) certainly pay attention to the environmental groups, NOAA and how they will apply to other regions," said Linda Huston, Southeast Regional Manager for Holland America Line and Gray Line in Juneau.

Whale strikes are an issue on the East Coast because the right whale is endangered there, Huston said.

"Every region needs to stand on its own and how it's unique to itself," she said.

The cruise ship industry is likely to oppose blanket restrictions along the West Coast, said Don Habeger, director of industrial relations for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. in Juneau.

Cruise ships already adhere to restrictions of running at 10 knots or less in Glacier Bay because it's a popular whale feeding area, Habeger said.

Vessels automatically slow down for environmental conditions such as weather and physical conditions that include the natural lay of a body of water, Habeger said.

Twelve whale strikes occurred in Alaska from 1995 to 2001, according to NOAA's January 2004 Large Whale Ship Strike Database report. Three whales died, three were injured and the status on the others is unknown, the report said.

A cruise ship hit a whale May 6 in San Francisco Bay, where the speed limit is 15 knots, according to some passenger eyewitnesses. Crew members of the ship deny the claim, Shore said.

Environmentalists and the cruise ship industry can come to a compromise, said Kyla Bennett, Northeast director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Massachusetts.

Municipalities that want the economic benefit of tourism should not be discouraged, but can also act in an environmentally responsible manner, Bennett said.

"It shouldn't be painful to them," she said.

Some of NOAA's proposed regulations that environmentalists would like to see reach the West Coast are:

• Designated routes established with the greatest possibility of reducing the risk of collisions.

• Seasonal speed restrictions of 10 to 14 knots unless it is determined there are no whales present.

• Developing an understanding between NOAA and vessel operators that primarily transit along the coast locally and between ports. The understanding would be that vessels use designated traffic lanes or avoid transiting the area to the maximum extent practicable. Those not using the lanes would be subject to a uniform speed restriction.

A long-term recommendation, Shore said, is to have aerial surveys of whales to chart their location.

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