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Washington, DC — Citing unspecified “national security”
concerns, the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard is refusing to help protect
the endangered North Atlantic right whale, according to an exchange of letters
released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
This June, the Coast Guard again rebuffed requests to issue an advisory warning
ship captains to slow to 12 knots and exercise caution in areas where right
whales have been sighted.

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 several months, five percent
of the total female breeding population has been killed, as well as two near
term calves. The single biggest known source of whale strikes is U.S. government
vessels, with the Coast Guard and Navy accounting for nearly one-quarter of
all reported ship strikes on whales.

In a letter dated May 9, 2005 to Admiral Thomas Collins, William Hogarth, head
of NOAA Fisheries, wrote that he is “asking once more” for the Coast
Guard to be of “assistance in reducing the risk of mortality to right
whales as a result of ship strikes.” Hogarth sought USCG cooperation in
putting out an advisory to shippers that includes “language from NOAA
recommending speeds of 12 knots or less in areas used by right whales, when
consistent with navigational safety.”

In a reply dated June 9, 2005, Admiral Collins, the Coast Guard Commandant,
objected that taking even this voluntary measure “could be viewed as Coast
Guard endorsement of speed restrictions.” Collins added that issues “regarding
vessel speed or routing regulations” raise “national security,”
legal and “other policy interests” that “must be considered
along with recovery of right whales.”

“The real message from Admiral Collins is that the Coast Guard leadership
places protecting its bureaucratic turf far above protecting the world’s
threatened natural resources,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett,
a former federal biologist whose organization is 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. “The American delegation to the International Whaling Commission
has condemned Japan for seeking to kill whales for commercial purposes while
our Coast Guard supports killing whales to avoid commercial inconvenience.”

Underlying this interagency dispute is that the Coast Guard and Navy both contend
NOAA lacks legal authority over commercial shipping and certainly not over Navy
and USCG vessels. In fact, NOAA’s stalled proposed rule is premised precisely
on the existence of such legal authority. On June 22, NOAA took its first step
toward adoption of those rules by publishing a notice it is preparing an Environmental
Impact Statement on its right whale ship strike reduction strategy.

“The problem is that the right whale has no time left for further political
wrangling – it is a species headed straight for extinction,” Bennett
added, noting that NOAA’s experts say the population cannot afford even
one more premature death. “Ironically, this year’s good news about
more than two dozen right whale calves underscores the danger because the calves
are the most vulnerable to ship strikes.”


May 9, 2005 NOAA letter to Coast Guard Commandant

Coast Guard Commandant’s June 9, 2005 reply to NOAA

at an update on the deteriorating status of the endangered North Atlantic right

about the growing ship strike threat to whales

Phone: 202-265-7337

962 Wayne Avenue, Suite 610
Silver Spring, MD 20910-4453

Copyright 2001–2023 Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility

PEER is a 501(c)(3) organization
EIN: 93-1102740