NOAA hears ship speed limit arguments

Slowing traffic would protect whales, agency says


Proposed federal speed limits for large ships to prevent collisions with endangered whales were applauded by conservationists yesterday at a public hearing in Baltimore.

Shipping industry representatives expressed concern that the envisioned speed limits of 10 to 14 knots - which would affect ships longer than 65 feet at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and outside several major Atlantic ports - would hurt business.

The killing of whales by ships became a subject of concern in the Chesapeake region most recently in April, when a rare sei whale was struck by a container ship that dragged its carcass into Baltimore Harbor.

More than 20 killings of whales during collisions with ships have been confirmed along the East Coast over the past four years.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration thinks slowing down larger ships will mean fewer fatalities, said Gregory K. Silber, its coordinator of whale recovery activities.

NOAA is focusing on trying to protect right whales - a species hunted nearly to extinction during the 19th century - because only about 300 of them remain, Silber said. One or two are killed each year by ships, he said.

"We are looking at a highly depleted species. ... We want to be as effective as possible in protecting these animals but also limit the economic impact," Silber told an audience of about 30 people at the hearing in the auditorium of the Maryland Science Center.

NOAA will decide whether to impose a speed limit by spring for ships longer than 65 feet, which sometimes travel at 20 knots or faster. Limits of 10, 12 or 14 knots are being considered.

Navy and other federally owned vessels would not be affected by the limits. The regulations would be enforced within a radius of about 25 nautical miles from major ports including Norfolk, Va., Boston and New York. Sections of the Chesapeake Bay more than 25 nautical miles from Norfolk would not be affected.

David Laurent Giles, a naval architect, said during the hearing that the speed limit would discourage shipping by sea and encourage more air pollution as companies choose airplanes and trucks.

"You are putting serious obstacles in the way of things like the Volvo race," Giles said of the international sailboat race that has stopped at Baltimore in the past, with some entries longer than 65 feet. "Cruise ships ... will be affected. It will take a great deal longer to get from New York to the Bahamas and other destinations."

Sierra Weaver, an attorney for the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, said speed limits are worthwhile because right whales are nearly extinct. Lower speeds will have a slight impact on business, she said, but could prevent a tragedy.

"The loss of even one [whale] brings this species closer to extermination," Weaver said. "Ten knots is the speed limit we need. We can't wait any longer. ... We want to make sure that mothers and calves have protections this winter calving season."

Richard Blankfeld, an economist hired by the federal government to study the potential economic impact of the speed limits, estimated that they would increase the total cost of shipping by about two tenths of a percent.

Those complaining about the proposed speed limits include operators of whale-watching ships in New England, concerned that longer trips would be less appealing to potential customers, Blankfeld said.

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