Saturday, July 19, 2008

Federal Court Orders Coast Guard to Review Shipping Routes to Protect Endangered Right Whales

The federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a major decision in the ongoing battle to save the world's last remaining North Atlantic right whales. Ruling on a lawsuit filed by Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, Ocean Conservancy and other whale advocates, the Court ordered the Coast Guard to review the impact of shipping traffic lanes on endangered whales. The ruling is a crucial step toward altering shipping lanes to stop ship strikes in critically endangered right whale habitat.

"We applaud the court's decision," said Robert Dreher, vice president of conservation law for Defenders of Wildlife. "Ship collisions are the greatest threat to the survival of the right whale, so ensuring that the Coast Guard protects the whale in setting shipping lanes is a great conservation victory."

Ship strikes are the leading cause of injuries and mortalities to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Vessel strikes are known to kill or injure a minimum of three whales each year on the East Coast, and a number of ship strikes are believed to go unreported. Only about 350 North Atlantic right whales are left, and according to the National Marine Fisheries Service the loss of even one whale brings the species closer to extinction. The North Atlantic right whale is protected under both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"This decision is a wake-up call for the Coast Guard," said Jonathan R. Lovvorn, vice president of animal protection litigation for The HSUS. "The agency cannot just stand idly by while the last few right whales are run into the ground by the shipping industry."

In 2006 the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed a rule to limit ship speeds in right whale habitat to further avoid ship strikes. The Bush Administration has delayed implementation of this rule even though slower speeds are necessary to save this endangered species.

"The Court made clear that U.S. Coast Guard has an obligation to protect endangered whales from ship strikes by assessing its routing measures," said Vicki Cornish, vice president of marine wildlife conservation at Ocean Conservancy. "However, the Bush Administration shares this responsibility and it has yet to act on speed restrictions. The Office of Management and Budget needs to stop delaying vital protections before we lose right whales forever."

The same plaintiffs recently filed a new lawsuit regarding NMFS's refusal to impose emergency ship speed restrictions while the agency's 2006 proposed rule is being finalized. The Court noted in today's decision that the continued delay in finalizing the proposed rule "cast doubt" on the propriety of refusing to issue emergency measures.

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