Washington, DC — A proposed plan for ship speed limits in order to protect the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale is being held up by White House officials due to opposition by foreign shipping interests, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which has been campaigning for adoption of these measures. In an unusual move, the White House Council of Economic Advisors is now reviewing causes of right whale deaths, a task already done by marine experts.
On June 26, 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed speed limits of 10 knots (or 11.5 miles per hour) for shipping along the eastern seaboard during the migration of right whales between Florida and New England. No action has been taken on the plan more than nine months following the end of the public comment period, despite the urgency of the need stated by NOAA.
Ship strikes are the leading cause of death for the right whale, considered one of the planet’s most endangered species with fewer than 300 animals left in existence. Last year, there were six known right whale deaths – four from collisions with ships. Right whale calves are particularly vulnerable to ship strikes due to their undeveloped diving capability.
“Speed limits are the indispensable ingredient in a winning recovery strategy for the right whale,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former federal biologist, who has waged a three-year long effort for speed limits and other ship strike reduction measures. “The current official ‘Potential Biological Removal’ level for the right whale is at zero, meaning that the premature loss of even one more whale could tip the species into a tailspin toward extinction.”
Since the public comment period on the NOAA plan ended back in October 2006, the plan is being held up by the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB) past the normal 90-day review period. Foreign shipping companies are lobbying OMB, which, in turn has taken the peculiar step of asking another arm of the White House, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, to review both the need for and costs of speed limits. It is not clear what expertise the Council has on the rule’s biological impacts.
As recently as May 3, 2007, the World Shipping Council submitted a letter reiterating opposition to speed limits to Susan Dudley, who heads the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Of the 27 companies that signed the letter, almost all are foreign owned and most of the remainder use foreign- flagged ships. One of the foreign firms, Mediterranean Shipping Company, was cited for intentionally dumping oily waste into Boston Harbor.
“Of the tens of thousands of port calls affected by the proposal, the overwhelming majority are foreign owned or registered. Of course, foreign shippers want no environmental restrictions on how they use and sometimes abuse American waters but our government is supposed to be protecting our national interests, which include our endangered wildlife,” added Bennett, noting that the U.S. Coast Guard was recently authorized to change shipping routes on the Eastern Seaboard to minimize collisions during right whale migrations. “The Bush administration should listen to our own experts rather than corporate lobbyists representing largely foreign interests.”