Rare whale likely killed in Atlantic

April 20, 2006|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

Scientists have concluded that a rare whale that turned up dead in Baltimore's Patapsco River likely died when it was hit by a cargo ship in the Atlantic Ocean, and then was dragged into the Chesapeake Bay.

The 35-foot-long sei whale had several broken bones and internal bleeding that suggest it was killed by the MSC Johannesburg as it traveled from Boston to Baltimore, said Cindy Driscoll, director of fish and wildlife health programs at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

It's extremely unusual for whales of any kind to be found in Maryland's portion of the bay, experts said. Sei whales - an endangered species related to the blue whale - are normally found in deep areas of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The death of the 17,000-pound mammal came as a federal agency is considering speed limits for large ships to help protect whales off the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, near Boston and outside other ports.

The proposed regulations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would help reduce what the agency believes is a rising number of reported collisions between whales and ships along the East Coast, agency officials said.

Although many such accidents are believed to go unreported, 42 ships reported striking whales along the Atlantic Coast from 2000 to 2004, and 21 of the accidents resulted in the confirmed deaths of whales, according to a NOAA study.

Two of the deaths were of sei whales, said Teri Friday, a spokeswoman for NOAA in Massachusetts. Most of the rest were right whales, humpbacks and fin whales, Friday said.

Only about 300 right whales - prized by whalers during the 19th century for having the "right" combination of thick blubber and slow speeds - are believed to remain in the Atlantic. The speed limits are primarily designed to help this species because it is most in danger of elimination, but all whales would benefit, said Greg Silver, coordinator of recovery activities for large whale species at NOAA.

Perhaps 2,200 sei whales - faster and less fatty than right whales, therefore less desired by whalers until the slower mammals were killed off - are believed to survive in U.S. waters.

"We have drawn circles around port entrances and said in these areas there should be speed limits," Silver said. "We clearly understand that time is money for the shipping industry. But it's the conservation of whale species that is most important to our agency."

Container ships such as the MSC Johannesburg have no speed limits in most areas of the ocean, and have the ability to cruise up to 25 knots. NOAA, in proposed regulations to be released this summer, will suggest speed limits of about half that - 10 to 14 knots - in some zones around major ports, Silver said.

The ship that struck the sei whale this week had a bulb-shaped protrusion beneath the waterline, designed to help the ship's stability. The whale got stuck on the bulb, probably somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, state officials said. After being hit by the ship, the whale's bones broke, and the creature wrapped around the front of the ship, unable to slip down because of the bulb.

This torpedo-like bow design is probably deadlier for whales than a straight bow, Silver said. But it would be impractical to require ships to be redesigned to remove the bulb, so NOAA is not proposing such a change, he said.

"I do think the bulbs are a sort of cow-catcher and whales get trapped there," Silver said.

Many in the shipping industry oppose the suggested speed limits, saying there's no proof that the move would save endangered whales.

"The further out you put speed controls, the more effect you are going to have on commerce," said Joseph J. Cox, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America, which represents owners of large ships.

The container ship MSC Johannesburg set out from Boston on Sunday, headed for Baltimore. The crew didn't discover that the bus-sized whale was wrapped around the ship's bow until the ship dropped anchor off Annapolis on Monday, according to state officials.

Federal and state scientists conducted a necropsy - or animal autopsy - at Baltimore's Quarantine Road landfill. The examination concluded that the whale likely was killed by blunt trauma from the ship. But the examination also found scars around the whale's mouth, which suggested it might have been caught in nets or fishing lines in the past but escaped, officials said.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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