S.C. might be just right for whales

A survey flight in 2011 spotted two juvenile right whales 18 miles northeast of Georgetown.

Ten years after the first reports of newborn right whales off South Carolina startled observers, federal regulators propose to include waters off the coast in the “critical habitat” calving grounds for the imperiled species.

The grounds and critical area have been in southern Georgia and northern Florida, but eyewitness reports and survey flights have shown the whales calved over a wider range. The proposal was forced by a court order, after a number of conservation groups petitioned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2009 for the move, then sued in 2014 after delays in handling the petition.

It must move through an exhaustive review and public hearing process, but the proposal would expand the habitat from Florida and southern Georgia to southern North Carolina.

“Survey data and other studies over the past 20 years have increased our understanding of right whale ecology and habitat needs,” said Eileen Sobeck, NOAA fisheries administrator in announcing the move.

The designation would mean one more hurdle in a laborious process to win federal permits for offshore activities. It follows earlier controversial moves to protect the whales, including a 2013 NOAA requirement that makes large ships slow down in right whale waters.

Right whales are the rarest of the large whales, 40-ton creatures whose curious two-plume breathing spray and the lack of a dorsal fin distinguish them from other whales. Hunted to the brink of extinction a century ago, the critically endangered species now numbers 450 to 500 in the north Atlantic Ocean.

The whales have turned the corner toward potential recovery from a low of fewer than 300, thanks to awareness and conservation efforts. But the calving numbers have dropped in recent years, and the whales remain imperiled. Every whale alive is considered vital to the survival of the species.

Ship strikes, line entanglements and noise pollution are considered the biggest threats.

“It stops your heart for a second” to see a right whale, said Pawleys Island boater Mike Robino, who in 2005 piloted a vessel taking a state veterinarian offshore to confirm a report of a newborn calf and mom in the surf. “You realize how truly small you are compared to that animal. Having been up close and personal (to the whale), you can’t help but think if we can help them we should.”

Robino’s trip came after a sighting was made by a beach house roofer on the island. Even confirmed, the birth was considered a fluke. But survey flights begun shortly afterward found, on average, more than a dozen whales per year off South Carolina, including mothers and new calves.

The habitat proposal comes after a number of earlier protections, including a controversial rule requiring large ships to slow down near the coast when the whales are in season. The requirement was widely opposed by commercial shipping interests. The South Carolina Ports Authority helped fund survey flights out of Charleston for five years, partially to gauge the effectiveness of the rule.

“The (ports authority) will work in good faith with the U.S. Department of Commerce (NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service) to finalize the designation of shipping lanes developed through the evaluation of available science,” the S.C. ports agency said in reaction to the NOAA critical habitat proposal.

Survey flights ended here in 2012 due the loss of funding. They now fly the Florida-Georgia calving ground. A sighting alert network is still in place for shipping and other interests, but off South Carolina it now depends on private reports. No reports have been made this season.

NOAA did not immediately reply to questions asking what effect a critical habitat designation would have on current plans to permit sonic-boom tests and potentially drill for natural gas or oil offshore, or on military activities. Navy warfare and sonar training in the same waters recently were re-permitted without significant restrictions, despite scientific evidence the noise can deafen the whales.

The “critical habitat” proposal also would expand feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine/Georges Bank region, according to the NOAA release.

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