Coast Guard, Wildlife Groups Settle Whale Dispute

On Dec. 5, wildlife protection groups and the U.S. Coast Guard reached an agreement to end long-running litigation about the impact of sea traffic lanes on endangered whales.

Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, Ocean Conservancy, and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society had filed suit to force the Coast Guard to consider the impact of designating travel lanes in busy shipping areas on critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The agreement, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., includes the Coast Guard's commitment to abide by the requirements of the Endangered Species Act and ensure that Coast Guard-approved shipping lanes do not jeopardize the existence of critically endangered right whales.

Ship strikes are the No. 1 cause of injuries and death to the few hundred remaining critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. The government estimates that vessel strikes kill an estimated minimum of 20 endangered whales every five years on the East Coast, though it acknowledges that most whales that are hit are not likely to be found. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the loss of even one female right whale could jeopardize the species.

According to the agreement, the Coast Guard will consider the impacts of three existing shipping lanes in Delaware Bay, Chesapeake Bay, and Cape Fear, as well as any new or altered future lanes.

“Right whales are literally being run into the ground by the commercial shipping industry,” said Jonathan R. Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation and research for The HSUS. “The Coast Guard’s action is desperately overdue, and is a good first step toward protecting a species that is teetering at the brink of extinction.”

In addition to the Coast Guard’s agreement today, the National Marine Fisheries Service also recently ended its litigation with the groups by finalizing a rule to limit ship speeds to avoid ship strikes. The rule requires ships to slow to a speed of 10 knots (approximately 11 mph) in whale habitat.

Plaintiffs were represented by Meyer, Glitzenstein, & Crystal in Washington, D.C.

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