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Government wants to slow ships to help right whales
By Diane Tennant & Christopher Dinsmore

The Virginian-Pilot

2nd June 2004

To help save the severely endangered right whale, the federal government proposed on Tuesday significantly slowing commercial vessels approaching East Coast ports, including the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

The National Marine Fisheries Service proposal is designed to cut down on the number of fatal collisions between right whales and ships, which scientists consider a leading cause of accidental death for the species.

The proposal would slow ships to between 10 and 14 knots between the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and 30 nautical miles out to sea during five months of the year when right whales are known to pass off the Virginia coast: November, December, February, March and April. Vessels entering and leaving other ports would face similar restrictions at different times based on right whale migration patterns.

Despite attempts to protect right whales in the Northeast by notifying mariners of nearby animals and re routing some ships when large groups of whales are seen, whales are still killed by ship strikes.

The proposed speed limits would allow whales more time to get out of the way and also might reduce the water action that pushes whales aside, then pulls them back toward the ship or propeller, the National Marine Fisheries Service said. Shipping lines and the maritime community say they fear the speed limits could affect the tight schedules under which most vessels operate.

"Vessels need to maintain a certain speed to make sure their schedules remain intact,” said J.J. “Jeff” Keever, executive vice president of the Hampton Roads Maritime Association. “That’s a pretty significant portion of the year and obviously would have a significant impact on us.”

The proposal, published Tuesday in the Federal Register, is subject to revision based on analyses that will continue until 2005 . NMFS is accepting public comments on the proposal until Aug. 2 and plans to hold public meetings before issuing the final rules.

Speed limits and other protective measures have been considered since 2001 to protect North Atlantic right whales, the large-whale species most in danger of extinction. Only 300 right whales are believed to have survived, migrating from feeding grounds in New England and Canada to calving grounds off Florida and Georgia.

Their north-south migration conflicts with the east-west shipping traffic into the Chesapeake Bay to and from the ports of Hampton Roads and Baltimore. Between 1991 and 2002 , more than one-third of all right whale deaths were caused by ship strikes that occurred in the mid-Atlantic.

A ship strike was probably responsible for the most recent death, in which the carcass of a pregnant right whale was found off Virginia Beach in February. It ultimately washed ashore on the Outer Banks, where it was identified as Stumpy , a female known to have given birth to at least five calves. The loss of a breeding female plus a calf has a tremendous effect on a small population, scientists said.

“Ship collisions are the No. 1 source of human-caused mortality in this species,” said Aleria Jensen , a fishery biologist in the Office of Protected Resources at NMFS . “It’s unclear whether the whales are just not detecting oncoming ships or whether they’re so engaged in their activities that they’re ignoring these ships or oblivious to them.”

About 16 percent of Hampton Roads’ port traffic would be affected, an NMFS analysis found, for an estimated cost of $353 per vessel call or $1.8 million a year . “I think that’s way underestimated,” Keever said. “If a vessel is delayed just 30 minutes, it’s a lot more than that.”

The port of Hampton Roads sees many different commercial vessels, from oil tankers and coal colliers to faster container and cruise ships. Hampton Roads is the East Coast’s third busiest container port.

Container ships typically cruise at sea at speeds in excess of 22 knots , or nautical miles per hour. As they approach the mouth of the Bay, they start slowing about 14 miles out to speeds between 14 and 17 knots as they switch to cleaner-burning fuel and prepare to take on a harbour pilot, said Capt. Hugh McCrory of the Virginia Pilots Association.

Ship lines operate on tight schedules to meet the just-in-time delivery needs of such customers as Target, Wal-Mart and Home Depot, said Tom Dushatinski , assistant vice president of operations at the Portsmouth office of P&O Nedlloyd Ltd., one of the world’s larger lines. Vessels are scheduled to make berths and travel through the Panama Canal at specific times, he said.

“Anything that’s going to slow that ship up so it can’t make a berth is going to affect the steamship lines and cost us money,” Dushatinski said.

Because most container ships cruise near their top speed, lines probably won’t be able to make up the lost time at sea, said Wayne K. Talley , executive director of Old Dominion University’s International Maritime, Ports & Logistics Management Institute.

The Navy is exempt from the proposed speed limits because it has its own protective measures in place, Jensen said.

Comments may be directed to
Chief, Marine Mammal Conservation Division,
Attn: Right Whale Ship Strike Strategy, Office of Protected Resources,
National Marine Fisheries Service,
1315 East-West Highway,
Silver Spring, Md. 20910.
Fax comments to 301-427-2522.

E-mail to, or follow instructions at

Reach Diane Tennant at 446-2478 or Reach Christopher Dinsmore at 446-2271 or