Washington, DC — In the wake of another critically endangered North Atlantic right whale calf found dead as the apparent victim of a ship strike, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) today officially petitioned the U.S. Coast Guard to use its emergency power to establish safety zones in Florida where the vulnerable calves spend the winter.
On January 10, 2006, a right whale calf was found dead near Jacksonville, with its tail brutally sliced off, injuries consistent with propeller wounds. 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.
A large cohort of calves born this summer is the slow-moving whale’s only chance for survival. Right whale calves are particularly vulnerable to ship strikes due to their undeveloped diving capability. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has assigned a “Potential Biological Removal” of zero to the species, meaning that every new human-caused death could push the species over the brink of extinction.
“This is the critical moment for the Coast Guard to act,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former federal biologist whose organization is also pushing for adoption of long-stalled proposed rules by NOAA that would require reduced ship speeds, rerouting and channel restrictions to minimize ship traffic in sensitive calving and migratory areas. “If this generation of calves is decimated by ship collisions, the species is unquestionably doomed. The Coast Guard has demonstrated that it’s an agency that gets the job done and done well…when they decide to do so. We are asking the Coast Guard to use their emergency powers to intervene and help prevent ship strikes of right whales, a role that the Coast Guard can and should undertake.”
The PEER petition asks that the Coast Guard use its powers to impose a 12-knot ship speed limit in the area covering approaches to Jacksonville seaward and eastward until the animals migrate out of the zone.
This past June, citing unspecified “national security” concerns, the Coast Guard rebuffed requests by NOAA to issue an advisory warning ship captains to slow to 12 knots and exercise caution in areas where right whales have been sighted. Both the Coast Guard and U.S. Navy contend NOAA lacks legal authority over commercial shipping and over Navy and USCG vessels.
In this instance, PEER is invoking the Coast Guard’s own, explicit legal authority to establish a “safety zone, security zone, or regulated navigation area” for “environmental purposes,” according to federal regulations that allow any person to file a petition with the Coast Guard to create a safety zone that “may be stationary and described by fixed limits or it may be described as a zone around a vessel in motion.”
“The right whale needs immediate help to survive, and the Coast Guard can be the species’ savior,” Bennett added. “Taxpayers spend millions each year to monitor right whales and respond to entanglements and other emergencies; all that money, time and effort, as well as this species, may soon be gone if the Coast Guard sits on its hands.”