Ocean 'highway' rerouted for right whales

Shipping lanes near Boston's busy port take a detour to try to prevent ship-whale collisions.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Instead of frolicking and feeding in the middle of a dangerous ocean "highway" filled with massive cargo ships with sharp propellers, endangered humpback whales named Echo, Owl, Glo, and Pepper now find themselves on a much safer shoulder.

In a first-of-its-kind move in the US, ocean shipping lanes outside the port of Boston were rotated slightly to the northeast and narrowed, avoiding the highest whale concentrations – including fin, humpback, and sei – but especially the endangered northern right whale. That detour, effective as of July 1, takes ships around, not through, the whales' heaviest feeding areas off the Massachusetts coast.

The new lanes are expected to lower by more than 80 percent the likelihood of ship-whale collisions and could be a model for US ports on both East and West coasts, researchers say.

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"This is one of the most significant steps taken in the US to help these endangered whales, and we're very pleased with both the direct impact, as well as the precedent it will set for other US ports," says David Wiley, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researcher.

The lane shift was the product of four years of research, safety checks by the US Coast Guard, and approval by the International Maritime Organization, which governs international ship channels. The main impetus was to help the right whale, whose numbers have dropped to about 400 animals in the North Atlantic in large part because of collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear.

In the former lanes, two or three whales are hit and killed by ships each year in the 842-square-mile Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary off the Massachusetts coast near the busy port of Boston.

That rate of loss is enough to make a species like the right whale extinct sometime in the next century, research has shown.

Dr. Wiley's 25 years of data showed almost 62,000 sightings of humpback, right, fin, and minke whales in the old shipping lanes – but just 12,000 sightings over that period in the new lanes.

Those data indicate that the modest shift in shipping lane channels will cut the risk of deadly collisions for right whales by 58 percent, Wiley says.

Of course, time is money and the new routes add 3.75 miles to the overall distance and between 10 and 22 minutes to each one-way trip into Boston Harbor. Still, the Massachusetts Port Authority and the shipping industry, as well as the NOAA and other federal agencies, decided the detour is worth it.

"We have extensively studied the problem and whale behavior and have devised this measure as a much safer environment for ships and whales, while at the same time being the least disruptive to the economy," said Conrad Lautenbacher, Department of Commerce undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere, in a statement.

The move isn't without precedent. One similar lane change was made in Canada near the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia a few years ago to benefit the right whale.

Right whales travel south and winter off the coasts of Georgia and Florida, where females and calves feed. During their migration up and down the East Coast, they travel in shipping lanes. If whale concentrations can be mapped, similar lane-shift strategies might be adopted outside ports like New York; Baltimore; Charleston, S.C.; or Jacksonville, Fla.

Similar efforts could be made to help the Pacific right whale on the West Coast. The key problem, Wiley and others say, is that the data for these areas is not as extensive.

"The next important place is to focus on is the Great South Channel off Nantucket," Wiley says. "The applicability of this approach is quite broad. It's all the same thing: Anything we can do to reduce the amount of time of ships and whales in close proximity to one another, the better off you are."

New opportunities for gathering data are afoot, he says. As part of the recent approval to install new liquefied-natural-gas terminals just outside the Stellwagen sanctuary, the companies agreed to pay to deploy acoustic buoys that will help identify and locate right whales – and quickly relay their positions to approaching tankers – helping avoid collision.

That approach might also be applied to other species and at other ports, Wiley says.

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