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Monday, May 25, 2009

More right whales - more trouble?

In this Feb. 2009 photo, a North Atlantic right whale swims with her calf in the Atlantic off the coast of the United States near the border between Florida and Georgia. Right whale births set a record in 2009.

New England Aquarium/AP

As numbers grow, so will controversies

The Post and Courier, Saturday, May 23, 2009

In this Feb. 2009 photo, a North Atlantic right whale swims with her calf in the Atlantic off the coast of the United States near the border between Florida and Georgia. Right whale births set a record in 2009.

For two years, microphones in the icy North Atlantic off Greenland have picked up something nobody expected to hear — the deep mooing of the nearly extinct right whale.

The eastern population of the whales is supposed to be hunted to extinction in the seas north and east of the New England feeding grounds; the soundings raise the spine-tingling possibility a few might still be there. That would mean more whales, and potentially more genetic diversity, exist to buoy a species so depleted that every living whale is considered vital to its survival.

Meanwhile, the few hundred right whales along the Eastern seaboard continue to do well. Last winter, a record-breaking 39 calves were spotted in aerial surveys off the Southeast; 194 individual whales were spotted off Georgia, and 121 were spotted off South Carolina. The species might be making a comeback.

That means more trouble. As the whales' numbers grow, so will the controversies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the Greenland findings have implications for shipping in the region as the Arctic ice cap recedes.

The presence of the whales and rules to protect them are disrupting everything from shipping to naval warfare training. As the whales lumbered off the Lowcountry last winter, shipping and ports interests fought a federal mandate that slows down large ships within 23 miles of the coast when the whales are around. Shippers say the slowdown costs millions of dollars and the whales are rarely struck.

The controversy became so intense that a feel-good bill to make the right whale the state marine mammal — introduced as an elementary school project — stalled after port officials complained.

The state Legislature passed a hotly contested law exempting Charleston Harbor pilots from the speed rules; their boats are slightly larger than the minimum size affected. NOAA is weighing options to deal with that. Meanwhile, plans by the Navy to expand training and sonar ranges off the coast are being opposed feverishly by groups concerned about the threat to species such as the whale.

"We're seeing more animals down there and more animals off South Carolina," said Cynthia Taylor, Wildlife Trust aquatics conservation vice president. "The high number of calves is very encouraging."

But while the numbers are encouraging, the threat of a fishing line entanglements, boat strikes or other threats grows right along with it, she said. "It's kind of ironic."

The right whale is the legend of the Atlantic, a 40-ton, 50-foot-long creature that whalers nearly wiped out in the 19th century. A whaling ban and increased attention from conservation groups appears to be giving the huge mammals a chance to recover. About 400 are known to exist today. Once, there were fewer than 300.

"There were tens of thousands of these whales in the ocean. Our forefathers in New England hit them pretty hard," said David Cottingham, NOAA marine mammal conservation chief. "This is not like deer grazing alongside the interstate. You've got (about) 300 of them all the way from the Bay of Fundy to Florida.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or bpetersen@ postandcourier.com.


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