Does President Bush Hate Whales?

Not content with his extremely low popularity amongst Americans and his even more dismal record of unpopularity amongst non-Americans, President George W. Bush has decided to bring these points even lower with his announcement that the White House has blocked proposed regulations protecting right whales on the Eastern Seaboard.

On June 26, 2006, after years of study, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed speed limits of 10 knots for shipping vessels along the East Coast of New England during the right whale migrations between Florida and New England. Last year, at least six right whale deaths were caused by collisions with shipping vessels.

Since the period for public comment on the NOAA plan ended in October 2006, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has stalled its implementation. Foreign shipping companies have successfully lobbied the OMB. The OMB has, in turn, asked another arm of the White House, the President's Council of Economic Advisors, to review both the need for and costs of imposing a speed limit.

As recently as May 3, 2007, the World Shipping Council (WSC) submitted a letter to Susan Dudley, head of the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, citing its opposition to speed limits.  "The data indicates that the threat from vessel strikes associated with military vessels and vessels less than 20 meters in length, both of which are exempt from the proposed rules, is substantially greater than any threat from containerships," argued the WSC. "There is virtually no evidence to indicate a correlation between vessel speed and the severity of injury in the event of a collision." Of course, the U.S. government's own agency, NOAA, has already provided that evidence, which the WSC has conveniently ignored.

Of the 27 companies that signed the letter, almost all are foreign-owned. One foreign firm, the Mediterranean Shipping Company, was previously cited for intentionally dumping oily waste into the Boston Harbor. "Of course, foreign shippers want no environmental restrictions on how they use and sometimes abuse American waters," said New England Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Director Kyla Bennett.  "But our government is supposed to be protecting our national interests, which include our endangered wildlife." Bennett is a former federal biologist who has campaigned for speed limits and other ship strike reduction measures.

"Speed limits are the indispensable ingredient in a winning recovery strategy for the right whale," said Bennett. "The current official Potential Biological Removal level for the right whale is at zero, meaning that the premature loss of even one more whale could tip the species into a tailspin toward extinction."

Only about 300 North Atlantic right whales remain today after commercial whaling wiped out most of the huge creatures in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A worldwide total ban on right whaling was agreed to in 1937. In spring, summer, and autumn, these whales feed in areas off the Canadian and northeast U.S. coasts from New York to Nova Scotia. In winter, they head south towards Georgia and Florida to give birth.

On July 1, 2007, for the first time in U.S. history, ship traffic lanes were shifted to reduce the risk of collisions between large ships and whales. Shipping lanes in and out of Boston Harbor have been rotated slightly to the northeast and narrowed to avoid waters with high concentrations of North Atlantic right whales. The International Maritime Organization approved the lane revision last December, and navigational charts have since been updated with the revision.

"Every effort must be made to protect these highly endangered animals," said Captain Paul Watson, founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. "Commercial shipping needs to demonstrate a modicum of responsibility here, and reducing speed limits on the approaches to Boston Harbor is hardly a major economic sacrifice."

As for the White House's efforts to block the legislation, Captain Watson commented, "The United States was once the greatest defending nation of whales in the world. That honor has now been taken up by Australia. Surely, the White House can allow 300 endangered right whales to live as a small compensation for betraying the whales elsewhere, with low frequency sonar and failure to defend the whales from illegal Japanese and Norwegian whaling."

The loss of every single right whale is a tragedy, and unless the White House instructs its bureaucratic thugs to stop whoring off the foreign shipping industry, more whales will die.