Shipping lanes shift to save rare whales

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BOSTON (AP) – The busy shipping lanes in and out of Boston Harbor will be narrowed and shifted northward today in a bid to lower the risk of fatal ship strikes on rare right whales.

It’s the first time in U.S. history shipping lanes have been changed to protect wildlife.

The lanes, which take vessels from southeast of Cape Cod into the port of Boston, host about 3,500 trips annually by ships from around the world carrying everything from cars to natural gas.

Today, the final stretch of the lanes will make a slight northeast rotation. Researchers say that removes the lanes from an area with a high concentration of North Atlantic right whales and reduces the ship strike risk there by more than 50 percent.

With the entire North Atlantic right whale population estimated at just 350, that lower risk is significant, said Richard Merrick, a federal researcher who helped devise the lanes shift.

“Every animal that dies has the potential for a major effect on the population. So we save one animal in that area, that’s a big deal,” said Merrick, who works for the National Marine Fisheries Service Protected Species Branch.

But the lanes shift raises concerns about vessel safety because the two lanes – one for incoming traffic, one for outgoing traffic – are each being narrowed by a half-mile to 1.5 miles in width, reducing a ship’s room to maneuver.

The shift, about five years in the making, also adds nearly four nautical miles and 10 to 22 minutes to each one way trip. That means lost time and money for shipping companies.

“Anytime there’s a recommendation thrown out that impacts time, then automatically you’re going to get the shipping industry saying, ‘Is it really necessary?”‘ said Richard Meyer, executive director of the Boston Shipping Association, which represents shipping companies and port employers.

North Atlantic right whales spend the winter in warm waters to the south and migrate to the Gulf of Maine each spring before returning south in the fall.

Ship strikes and marine gear entanglements are the top human causes of right whale deaths. Twenty-eight deaths of the whales due to ship strikes have been documented since 1972, including eight since 2004.

The shipping lanes run through the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a vital habitat for whales and other marine life. An analysis of 25 years of data of right whale sightings showed the lanes crossed an area with dense congregations of the animal – likely because that’s where food is.

The analysis also showed far fewer whales in an area just north of the lanes. By shifting the final east-west stretch of the lanes 12 degrees north, then lengthening the north-south portion that leads into the final turn, ships avoid the whale-crowded area.

“Given the size of most of these vessels, it makes complete sense to move these ships out of an area where we know the whales to be,” said Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the New England Aquarium.

The narrower lanes won approval from the Coast Guard and the International Maritime Organization, and navigators will adjust to them, said Andy Hammond, executive director of the Boston Pilots Association. But he added any loss of space is important because it reduces the mobility of the often massive ships in bad weather and various unforeseen circumstances.

“You don’t want to get into a situation that you can’t maneuver your way out of, and to maneuver a large ship is not the same as putting on the brakes on a car or truck,” he said.

Lost minutes also mean lost money for shippers, but those using the port of Boston may feel it more because the harbor is too shallow for ships to move in and out of when the tide is low, Meyer said. The lost time could push shippers against the transit window provided by the tides, forcing them to leave the harbor prematurely or keeping them from entering.

But Meyer said there’s no “doom and gloom” about the lanes shift, which he said is much less controversial than pending plans to reduce the speed limit to 10 knots in areas the whale is known to be active. Shippers aren’t convinced slowing down will make a difference for the whales, but the benefits of shifting the lanes away from them is clearer, he said. The speed restriction is still under federal review.

Measuring the effectiveness of the change will be difficult because the ship strike dangers exist up and down the coast, and it’s often difficult to know where the whales were hit. Merrick said fewer dead whales discovered in the Boston area and less scarring from ships on living whales will be sure signs it’s working.

Despite the uncertainties, Hammond said the lane shift is worth a try because of its possible benefits for the whales.

“As long as a balance is struck between navigational safety and keeping that safety level high, then we’re willing to work with that,” he said.

AP-ES-06-30-07 1444EDT

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