Shipping Rules Flounder

Posted Sept. 01, 2008, at 7:21 p.m.

Federal regulators are finally moving ahead on years late, watered-down rules requiring ocean vessels to slow down in some areas to avoid hitting right whales. One of the best aspects of the rules, released this week, is that they are meant to be studied to ensure they are working. This is undercut, however, by the fact that no money has been set aside for research and monitoring.

Similar problems plague rules that require lobsterman to use a new type of line between their traps to avoid entangling Atlantic right whales, an endangered species thought to number between 350 and 400.

Both lobstermen and ships should be required to take appropriate steps to avoid injuring and killing the whales. But, those steps must be reasonable given the probability of harming a whale. Without funds to study the lobster line and shipping speed reductions, regulators, lawmakers and the public are left guessing whether putting some lobstermen out of business and delaying a shipment of heating oil is worth it.

After years of study — and obstruction from the office of the vice president — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week recommended that ships be required to slow down to 10 knots, about 11 miles per hour, in designated areas including summer feeding grounds around Cape Cod, winter calving grounds off the southeast U.S. and within 20 miles of mid-Atlantic seaports as the whales migrate back and forth to the Bay of Fundy.

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The rules would expire in five years if not extended. The sunset is intended to allow the rules to end if they are not effective, NOAA said. Without the money to study the rules, it is more likely that the rules are a temporary, feel-good measure.

Just as the agency needs to spend more time studying where right whales and lobster gear interact, rather than require gear changes along the entire East Coast, it needs to study these rules to see if they reduce whale-ship collisions, the leading cause of death among right whales.

Such study is especially necessary given the disproportionate economic impact of the rules, which are scheduled to go into effect in April. NOAA estimated the annual cost of compliance with the gear changes to be $13.4 million. The lobster fishery accounts for approximately 92 percent of this total.

Lobstermen operate small vessels, often by themselves, so this number is spread over many individuals.

The agency calculates that the total economic impact of the slower shipping speeds would be $116 million a year, a tiny fraction of the nearly $300 billion in East Coast trade. The impact would mostly be spread among large shipping companies.

For these reasons, both rules need to be periodically reviewed, and changed, if they aren’t working or the cost far outweighs the results.

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