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Speed Limit Considered for Ships Entering U.S. Ports

STEVE INSKEEP: host:

So imagine that as you approached a major city, the interstate speed limit went all the way down from 65 to 30. That's roughly the kind of the speed restriction the government is proposing for ocean liners, container ships and other big vessel near East Coast ports. Federal officials and marine biologists think that's what it will take to save an endangered whale.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

About two years ago, a pregnant female whale named Stumpy, was found dead floating near Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Ms. AMY KNOWLTON (Right Whale Expert, New England Aquarium): It was most likely a large ship that caused a blunt impact that broke part of her skull.

SHOGREN: Stumpy was a Right Whale, a huge whale that's extremely endangered. Amy Knowlton is a Right Whale expert at the New England Aquarium. She says biologists had been tracking Stumpy since the 1970s. She got her name because part of tail was missing.

KNOWLTON: She was one of the oldest females in the population. She had borne five calves and was pregnant with her sixth calf. When you lose these old time females that have so reproductively active, it's just heart-wrenching.

SHOGREN: That's especially true, because there are only about 300 whales left in the North Atlantic. They were brought to the verge of extinction by whaling. And officials say that the biggest reason that haven't been able to recover is that ships crash into them and kill them. Greg Silber runs the Whale Protection Program for the National Marine Fishery Service.

Mr. GREG SILBER (Director, Whales Protection Program, National Marine Fishery Service): Of the last four or five known ship strikes, they were pregnant females, and a number of them had female fetuses. So when you remove those reproductive elements of your population, then of course the entire population has a great difficulty trying to recover.

SHOGREN: Silber's agency is proposing to reduce ship strikes by slowing ships down. He wants the speed limit of 10 knots when ships come within 30 miles of ports on the East Coast. The restriction will be in place seasonally when the whales congregate in or pass through different regions.

Mr. SILBER: But it's not the entire cost; it's just bubbles around the key ports.

SHOGREN: Right Whales get into trouble because they migrate, feed and nurse their young near shore where the ocean is busy with ships. Biologist Amy Knowlton says that's not the only reason they get hit by ships.

Ms. KNOWLTON: They're also fairly slow moving. They're quite rotund animals, so they might not have the agility that certain other large whale species have to avoid an approaching ship.

Mr. DON O'HARE (World Shipping Association): It really hasn't been shown that slowing ships down is going to avoid ship strikes with whales.

SHOGREN: That's Don O'Hare of The World Shipping Association. He says the government hasn't proved that slower speeds will save whales. On the other hand, he says a 10-knot speed limit definitely would be enormously costly to the shipping industry and the economy.

Mr. O'HARE: For 30 miles, they're basically asking those ships to cut their speed in half. Basically, that can add two to two and half hours in either direction coming in and out of a port. And when a ship stops at three or four or even five ports along the East Coast, that can add anywhere from 16 to 18, even 20 hours, to their transit.

SHOGREN: That means ships will have to burn a lot more fuel either because they're increasing speeds during the rest of their journey or increasing the length of their trips. O'Hare says ships will make fewer stops. So those products will have to be put on trucks or trains.

Mr. O'HARE: So all of that really is just going to add to the cost of transportation, which obviously comes back to the consumer in the long run.

SHOGREN: It will be months before a speed limit is imposed. O'Hare says, until then the shipping industry will do whatever it can to avoid more collisions with whales. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.