Shipping moved to save right whales

In a bid to give right whales a break from ship strikes, the shipping lane into and out of Boston will be tweaked northward and narrowed. The shift was approved last week by a committee of the United Nations International Maritime Organization, or IMO, at a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey.

”There’s a huge conservation benefit for just a small change,” said Craig MacDonald, superintendent of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Research prepared by sanctuary staff helped pave the way for the lane adjustment.

Essentially, the change will require vessels to make a wider turn around the Cape tip as they approach and depart Boston. The shipping lane will be shifted approximately 10 nautical miles to the north, said Stellwagen Geographic Information System analyst Michael Thompson.

The width of the shipping lane along the approach to Boston also will be narrowed from 5 to 4 nautical miles, as the result of the inbound and outbound traffic lanes being narrowed from 2 to 1.5 nautical miles.

The safety zone between the inbound and outbound lanes – think of a median strip – will remain at 1 nautical mile, Thompson said.

Stellwagen sanctuary officials calculate vessel transit times will increase by nine to 22 minutes in each direction on the passage in and out of Boston. According to the IMO subcommittee that recommended passage of the lane change, the action should maintain and improve maritime safety and reduce the likelihood of ships striking whales.

”It’s a win-win,” MacDonald said. ”It’s great thing for the shippers, too, and the marine industry, because here’s something that is minimally impactful to their interests, but hugely beneficial in terms of protection of the whales.”

IMO spokeswoman Natasha Brown, in an e-mail to the Times, said the lane change should go into effect July 1, 2007. The National Marine Sanctuary Program, the NOAA Office of Protected Resources and the General Counsel for International Law agreed to jointly propose the shift to the IMO.

Safety concerns

Gregg Farmer, president of the Boston Harbor Pilot Association, whose members guide vessels into and out of the Port of Boston, said he had safety concerns about the narrowing of the shipping lane.

He also expressed concern about the configuration of the new lane, particularly a possible ”bottleneck” area where Cape Cod Canal shipping traffic will merge into the lane used by vessels traveling around the Cape.

”For the whales it’s fine, but maritime safety was not given the priority it should have been,” said Farmer, who emphasized that his organization has consistently supported right whale conservation measures.

A whale ”hot spot”

In developing the proposal, researchers at the Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary relied on a 23-year database of sightings in the area of both right whales and other whale species, such as finback and humpback. They determined the current shipping lane passes through an area of high whale density – likely a ”hot spot” because of the availability of food sources.

Based on the database, officials have calculated that the lane change could reduce risk of ship strikes to endangered northern right whales by 58 percent and to all baleen whales by 81 percent. The northern right whale population is believed to hover at approximately 300 to 350 individuals.

Ship strikes have posed a consistent threat to right whales. In 2005, New England Aquarium research indicated that of the 48 dead right whales reported since 1986, at least 18 were killed by vessel collisions, in places up and down the Atlantic Seaboard.