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Ship strikes
Marine Science Today, November 23, 2009

Legal Effort to Protect Endangered Blue Whale Underway

The National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency charged with the stewardship of the U.S.’s living marine resources, may be sued for failure to implement the 1998 Blue whale Recovery Plan. Friends of the Earth, Pacific Environment and the Center of Biological Diversity have joined the notice of intent to sue submitted by the Environmental Defense Center last week.

Among other actions, the recovery plan mandates that the Fisheries Service identify and implement methods to eliminate or reduce blue whale mortalities from ship strikes. According to the groups, the agency has failed to carry out key provisions of the plan intended to both minimize and eliminate threats caused by ship strikes, pollution, and other harmful activities, as well as to improve the agency’s limited knowledge concerning blue whale populations and habitat needs.

Brian Segee, staff attorney with the Environmental Defense Center said:

“Recovery plans serve as the primary ‘road map’ of actions necessary to both protect and recover our nation’s most imperiled wildlife species .  The blue whale deaths in October again demonstrate that it is long past time for the Fisheries Service to carry out the Blue Whale Recovery Plan’s mandate to implement measures that will eliminate or minimize ship strikes.”

Driven to the brink of extinction by whaling in the mid-20th century, blue whale populations have begun to slowly increase in many areas, and the species is now sighted during the summer along many areas of the California coast.  While these increased sightings are cause for optimism, blue whale population numbers remain at a small fraction of their historic levels — today’s global population is estimated to be 10,000 animals, compared to a population of at least 350,000 before whaling.  In addition, the species is now confronted with a host of new and emerging threats, including not only ship strikes but climate change, ocean acidification, and noise pollution.

Blue whales are the largest animal to have ever lived on Earth.  The average adult blue whale is almost as long as a Boeing 737.  They live more than 50 years for certain and could live as long as 90-100 years.  They live in all oceans and migrate, travelling thousands of miles each year.  It is known that the Santa Barbara Channel hosts the largest seasonal population of blue whales.

The Potential Biological Removal (PBR) level for blue whales under the MMPA is 1.4.  The PBR is a number referring to the maximum number of animals, not including natural mortalities, that may be removed from a population annually while still allowing that population to reach or maintain its optimum sustainable size.  The deaths of at least five blue whales from ship strikes in Southern California in 2007, as well as two additional ship strike mortalities along the California coast in October 2009 appear to indicate that actions need to be taken.  Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity said:

“Abundant blooms of krill have brought blue whales to our coast, which has given many people a wonderful opportunity to see this rare, mammoth creature.  Unfortunately, as more whales have gathered off busy ports, more have been hit and killed by ships.  The Fisheries Service’s refusal to address threats like ship strikes threatens to erase all the hard-won progress this species has made so far.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, potential litigants must file a 60-day notice of intent to sue before lawsuits can be filed alleging that the government has failed to carry out its nondiscretionary duties under the Act.  While the conservation organizations are committed to pursuing legal remedies if necessary, it is their hope that submission of the notice will prompt the Fisheries Service to begin implementing the Blue Whale Recovery Plan without court intervention.

Find all relevant information on Blue Whales at: Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, American Cetacean Society, NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources

Materials compiled from the Environmental Defense Center and Center for Biological Diversity.

Copyright ©  2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton