White House delay on ship speed limit endangers whales

The North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered mammals, is in danger of extinction because the Bush administration has, so far, refused to impose measures to protect the creatures from being hit by ships near busy US ports.

Plans for a speed limit on shipping during the whales' migration season are bogged down in bureaucracy, which environmentalists say Vice-President Dick Cheney's office is orchestrating.

For more than a year, the White House has refused to implement the proposed 10-knot (11.5mph) speed limit, which scientists say will help prevent ships from hitting the slow-moving whales as they migrate up the East coast of America. "The Bush administration is blocking legislation, delaying regulations and disabling enforcement efforts to protect the right whale," said Vicki Cornish, of the wildlife group Ocean Conservancy.

Only 350 or so right whales remain in existence. The North Atlantic species, which grows to more than 60ft long, is black with distinctive white markings on its back. It was hunted to the brink of extinction for its oil and baleen in the 19th-century whaling boom. Hunting was finally banned in 1935, when only 400 or so whales remained. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration believes the species could be pushed to extinction by the death of a single pregnant female.

Between 2002 and 2006, 17 right whales – six of them adult females – were hit by ships and died. Since then, several calves have been killed by ships or becoming entangled in fishing gear.

Most of the females migrate along the Atlantic coast, from the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia to Cape Cod and nursing grounds off Florida. Mothers do not feed while calving but must produce thousands of gallons of milk to feed their calves. The exhausted slow-moving whales are especially vulnerable on their return north.

To prevent more right whale deaths, the US Fisheries Service wants to impose speed limits on ships within 30 miles of various ports. Under US law, the government should by now have implemented new regulations forcing ships to slow to less than 10 knots when migrating whales are spotted at certain times of the year.

But pressure from shipping companies and the state of Georgia, which argues that the measure would cause economic hardship, have led the Bush administration to try to run down the clock on the new regulations. The US Navy also objects to the speed limit and even whale-watching companies oppose it, saying it would prevent them from getting swiftly offshore to where whales are gathered.

Pleasure boat owners also object because an 800-berth marina is being built near one of the whales' main calving areas off Georgia.

The most vocal objections have come from the World Shipping Council, made up mostly of European and Asian shipping lines. It claims there is insufficient proof that reducing a ship's speed will prevent it from hitting a whale. The Georgia Ports Authority said it was unfair to blame shipping for whale deaths when "at best, it may be responsible for less than [half] of collisions".

But Ms Cornish argued: "What they are saying is, the faster the ships go, the sooner they are in and out of the way. So why not have speeding cars in front of a school, so they are in and out of the way before they hit a child?"

The White House is supposed to review proposed law changes within 90 days but, in the case of the whale "ship strike" rule, it has taken more than a year to act. A spokeswoman could not explain the delay, other than to say that it was a case of "due diligence".

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