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Will This Be the Last Strike for Right Whales? | Commentary

With fewer than 500 migrating up and down the U.S. East Coast each year, right whales rank as one of the world’s most endangered mammals. Yet, in less than two weeks, the most significant regulation in place to protect these gentle giants — the Final Rule to Reduce the Threat of Ship Collisions with North Atlantic Right Whales, also known as the Ship Strike Rule — is set to expire.

This newly proven and practical rule was put in place in 2008 and requires that all ships 65 feet in length or larger travel at a reduced speed of 10 knots (roughly 11.5 mph) while in areas of heightened right whale activity. However, the rule came with a sunset clause that is set to take effect on Dec. 9.

These vessel speed restrictions are working — no right whale has been killed by ships since the Bush administration established the Ship Strike Rule. Given this success, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has elected to remove the “sunset” clause; a move that could ensure that the right whale will remain protected from the greatest threat to its continued existence.

In 1935, when it became illegal to hunt the right whale, there were estimated to be only 100 individuals left. The recovery of this whale population has been slow, and it could easily be wiped out should the animal lose protection from the threats posed to it by human activity.

Science shows that by decreasing their speed, ships reduce the chance of collisions being fatal to whales by 80 percent — a number that should encourage the Obama administration to promptly support NOAA’s proposal to eliminate the sunset clause before it’s too late to make a difference for the right whale.

Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., has written a letter to President Barack Obama urging strong administration support for this common-sense regulation and noting the importance of both the right whale and efficient marine commerce to his state and the Eastern Seaboard.

Since President Richard Nixon first signed the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, the United States has consistently been the international leader in conserving and protecting oceans and marine species whose welfare, like our own, depends on healthy seas. The Obama administration has taken some important steps to enhance this proud legacy, such as establishing a National Ocean Council and a National Ocean Policy.

Protecting whales is an American priority above and beyond partisanship. A nationwide survey conducted last year by presidential pollster Joel Benenson revealed overwhelming support among Americans from coast to coast and across the political spectrum for U.S. government action to protect our planet’s great whales.

Now is not the time to abandon ship. Allowing the sun to set on a strong and effective Ship Strike Rule would be a serious strike to this administration’s legacy and America’s status as a world leader in marine conservation. The Obama administration must act now if we are to stay the course for effective right whale conservation.

Azzedine Downes is president and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

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