Whaling laws

This right whale was spotted in December 2007, about 3 miles east of James Island.

The right whales that winter offshore from the Lowcountry are the rarest of the large whales. They were hunted so close to extinction a century ago that the life of every remaining whale is considered vital to the survival of the species.

It’s about to go through a gantlet again. This one will be made of metrics, with shipping interests arguing one set of numbers and federal regulators another.

Five years after a law was passed requiring ships longer than 65 feet to slow to half speed within 23 miles of the Eastern coastline along the whales’ migration route, the rule is up for review. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposes to keep the rule in place.

Shipping and port interests fought the rule the first time, and appear to be mounting a battle to at least modify it now.

The presence of the whales and rules to protect them are said to have disrupted everything from commercial shipping to naval warfare training.

Harbor pilots are lobbying to change the rule to a “dynamic management” approach in which ships are slowed only when whales are seen in the area. The group wants the November-April slowdown season for South Carolina shortened by a month on either end, when few if any right whales still are in the water here.

The right whale is a legend of the Atlantic, a huge, 40-ton creature that whalers nearly wiped out in the 19th century. The numbers had fallen to few more than 300 when the animal was placed on the federal Endangered Species list.

Since then the whales have turned a corner; far more than 400 are out there now, and the number of calves year to year appears to be increasing.

Line entanglements and ship strikes continue to be their greatest man-made threats.

NOAA officials say the rules have worked — no whales have been struck in the zone since the rule was enforced.

John Cameron, Charleston Branch Pilots Association executive director, said that statistic is deceptive. Whales were not often struck before the rule, he said, and no whale has ever been reported struck in the Charleston shipping channel.

“South Carolina has never had a fatal strike,” Cameron said. Shipping in the state has operated since the 1970s as effectively as if the rule were in place, he said. But under the rule now, local shipping interests are saddled with the highest number of days regulated per square mile of ocean in the zone, he said.

When the rule was first issued, shippers argued that it would cost millions of dollars.

NOAA’s finding is that the rule cost only about 6 cents per $1,000, said Connie Barclay, of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

“It’s not having the impact expected,” she said.

NOAA’s proposed extension of the rule is open for public comment until Aug. 6.

The current rule “sunsets,” or ends in December if it isn’t extended or a new rule put in place.

The pilots association will push for the changes, Cameron said.

The season-shortening change will be considered, said Greg Silber, NOAA’s whale recovery coordinator. “Absolutely. That’s the reason for public comment,” he said.

But dynamic management “introduces a whole new level of unpredictability,” he said, for overseas shippers scheduling routes, because they don’t know where or when the rules will be in place.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.