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SC senators oppose proposed vessel speed changes that could protect endangered whales

Right Whales Deaths (copy)

Three right whale tails surface in Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown, Mass., in 2008. South Carolina senators oppose a proposal that would add protections for the species. File/Stephan Savoia/AP

South Carolina's two U.S. senators are opposing a federal proposal to slow more boats down in the ocean to help protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. 

Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham say they support the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's efforts to protect the nearly depleted whale species but have "serous concerns" about the proposal, including how it would affect commercial and maritime traffic. 

NOAA announced in July a potential rule change that would expand current seasonal speed restrictions of about 12 mph or less to all vessels that are at least 35 feet in length. 

Currently, only vessels that are 65 feet or longer must adhere to the slower speed rules. But smaller vessels have accounted for nearly half of the documented lethal strikes involving the whales along the U.S. coastline since 2008, according to NOAA.

Offshore South Carolina, home to the Port of Charleston, is among the whales' migratory path.

"Such a costly, sweeping proposal is excessive, and NOAA must find a better way to achieve its conservation goal," Scott, Graham and four other senators said in a letter sent this month to NOAA administrator Richard Spinrad.

In the letter, the South Carolina Republicans said speed restrictions would blanket the entire East Coast, including Federal Navigation Channels, or narrow "highways" that serve ports in South Carolina and other states.

A deviation clause allows large commercial ships to navigate the channels. 

"Both the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have affirmed the need for large commercial ships to maintain safe control in entrance channels, and since ships have grown up to three times larger since 2008, safety margins have become even more critical," the letter said. 

The senators said NOAA is not aware of right whale vessel strikes in these channels, so they should not be included in the proposal.

Advocates of the slower speeds said the reductions are needed because it is hard to pinpoint where boat strikes happen in the ocean and that injured whales can live for months afterward, said Lauren Rust, founder of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network.

The letter dated Oct. 20 suggests leaving pilot boats out of the proposal, too. These are the boats that transport harbor pilots to larger vessels who take over ship guidance.

Slowing their speeds would not only be dangerous, the senators said, but could increase pilot and crew fatigue, plus negatively affect port efficiency, the letter noted. It cited several pilot and shipping-related organizations as making these claims. 

Additionally, the senators said the speed restrictions would harm charter and recreational boaters, fishermen and mariners who may resort to canceling or shortening their trips. 

Right whales' primary habitat and nursery grounds coincide with heavy recreational vessel traffic, Rust said. 

If the restriction is adopted, the rule changes would apply to parts of the ocean, or seasonal management areas, during periods when whales are frequently seen.

In the mid-Atlantic, that is between Nov. 1 and April 15. The whales are known to move within miles of the state's coast. 

South Carolina is tucked into a managed zone spanning from Wilmington, N.C., to Brunswick, Ga.

Officials contend the species has been in a critical reduction period for some time.

"Slowing all vessels down and expanding the Seasonal Management Areas would likely reduce collisions with right whales," Rust said in an email. "Each right whale death is a huge loss to this population and we feel these seasonal rules are the best measures needed to protect the NARW and other large whales."

No North Atlantic right whale mortalities have been documented so far this year, according to NOAA. But about 2 percent of the population was lost last year, leaving about 340 in the ocean, per the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

Follow Shamira McCray on Twitter @ShamiraTweets.

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