Coast Guard Blocks Right Whale Safety Steps
Commandant Spurns NOAA Pleas for Voluntary Advisory Urging Caution
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.”