The Shipping Rules

Posted Nov. 30, 2008, at 5:25 p.m.

Federal regulators last month belatedly finished rules requiring ocean vessels to slow down in some areas to avoid hitting endangered whales. One of the best aspects of the rules is that they will be studied to ensure they are working.

This same standard should apply to rules that require lobstermen 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.

To turn the intention into actual reviews, the rules must be followed with funding for the required research and monitoring.

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.

For example, there has been too little effort made to map where lobster gear and whale travel lanes overlap. Without this information, many lobstermen may be making expensive and time-consuming line changes that will have little or no benefit on whale populations.

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 month issued rules requiring ships to slow down to 10 knots, about 11 miles per hour, within 20 miles of shore. It also includes voluntary speed limits in areas where three or more whales have been spotted.

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.

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 whether 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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