An image taken from a rescue attempt of a Right Whale stuck in a fishing net in 2005. Speeding ships have killed many of the gentle whales as their numbers continue to fall.
North Atlantic Right Whale mortality rates increase as the species dips below 300; shipping industry remains apathetic

Last year, DailyTech in a blog took a provocative look at Japan's unique position of being one of the only civilized countries to conduct large scale whaling.  The article pointed out that Japan's yearly slaughtered, some of which are threatened or endangered species, serves little point as it is government subsidized and the Japanese people aren't eating whale.  In fact, whale meat is so hard to sell; the government is leaving millions of pounds to rot in warehouse and using the rest in pet food and children's school lunches.

The tough times for whales are limited to merely whaling though.  Some of the most endangered species of whale are facing an even graver danger from bureaucratic red tape, and what boils down to slothfulness on the part of shipping corporations.

North Atlantic Right Whales are among the world's most intelligent, gentle, and massive creatures, weighing in at 70 tons on average.  However, there amiable nature made them perfect targets for whaling; in fact their name was originated from the joke that they were "the right whale to hunt".  They were nearly hunted to extinction until a 1935 ban was put in place.

While they are no longer hunted, their numbers have not been increasing.  Scientists have discovered the reason why is because they are being struck by fast moving ships travelling the ship lanes during migration season.  The high mortality rate has the whale population to actually decline slightly, with births unable to offset the deaths.

Says Jim Lecky, director of the Office of Protected Resources at the National Marine Fisheries Service, "We think that more animals are being killed than are being born, and there are a couple of main sources of human-caused mortality that we are trying to reduce.  Collisions with ships are the number one cause of mortality, and entanglement in fishing gear is the number two cause."

This senseless tragedy could easily be avoided by shipping companies at little cost.  If companies simply ordered their ships to travel slower in select regions -- Bay of Fundy off Nova Scotia, Canada, to the coast of north Florida -- during migration season, the whales would be able to avoid the ships safely.  However, the federal measure to enact such measures is in danger of sinking due to bureaucratic bickering.

With only 300 of the whales remaining, some smaller shipping organizations are even supporting the measures.  The Chamber Shipping of America, a smaller shipping organization released a statement that, "Our members believe the economic impacts associated with the proposed rule ... are well worth the benefits to preserving this most endangered species."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is charged with developing a plan, has researched the issued thoroughly and found that collisions with ships travelling at over ten knots are almost surely fatal.  A speed limit it points out would only cost $112 million, or less than 1 percent of the Atlantic shipping companies' $340 billion in yearly revenue.  Despite support from smaller organizations, the large World Shipping Council has opposed the measure claiming it will inflict "significant economic costs".

Lecky sardonically replied to the Council's stubbornness, "Would you speed through a school zone?"

The World Shipping Council, which has declined interviews with the media, refuses to reverse its stance.  Meanwhile the government proposal has languished with a "yea" or "nay" vote not yet held by the Office of Management and Budget, the deciding organization. 

Rep. Henry Waxman blames Cheney and Bush administration for the delays.  He states that they believe that "science shouldn't bind them. They're going to do what industry wants."  He adds, "I think many of the scientists who work for the government are very frustrated, and scientists outside of government are astounded to see the scientific method so abused by this administration. There's been a politicization of science to either ignore the science, rewrite it, or to suppress it."

Jacob Levenson, a biologist with the International Fund for Animal Welfare agrees, pointing out, "Really good scientists, inside the government and outside, all agree on what to do to protect right whales, and yet, it's being thwarted at the administrative level.  People don't realize that this is a drastic improvement to right whale protection that we can make pretty easily, with minimal impact, I don't know why it is collecting dust at OMB."

And Vicki Cornish, vice president of marine wildlife conservation at the Ocean Conservancy adds, "The industry is not going to do the right thing unless there is a universal requirement to slow down."

While the scientists and advocates are very vocal in backing the seemingly common sense proposal, they face a tough challenge.  The shipping industry's biggest players are heavily lobbying government officials to try to dissuade them from the measure.  While they remain publicly silent, their message is clear -- the whales aren't even worth a small cost to save.

"Well, there may be a reason why they call them 'Mac' trucks! Windows machines will not be trucks." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
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