Do right by these whales

New England’s whale-watching boats and oceangoing freighters and tankers are worlds apart in size, but they have one thing in common: both are a threat to whales, especially the endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The whale-watching captains should stick to their industry’s voluntary speed limits in the vicinity of whales, and the Bush administration should stop delaying a proposed speed limit on big ships around coastal areas where whales are feeding, reproducing, or migrating.

In 1998, New England whale-watching boats collided three times with whales, killing at least one. That led to a tightening of speed rules for the boats in 1999. But according to a study last month in the journal Conservation Biology, captains routinely exceed the limits.

Whale-watching is a $30 million business in New England and has the benefit of making whale enthusiasts out of the more than 1 million people who annually board the boats.

But Craig D. MacDonald, superintendent of the Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary – a popular whale-watching area north of the Cape – says the sanctuary is considering measures to control boat speeds near whales.

A much greater menace to whales is collisions with commercial ships, the leading cause of right-whale deaths in the western Atlantic.

Scientists estimate there are just 300 to 400 of the sea mammals in existence. Since 1986, at least 19 right whales died as a result of ship strikes. In 2006 alone, ship collisions injured at least five right whales.

More than a year ago, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed a rule forcing ships bigger than 65 feet to slow to 11.5 miles per hour in the vicinity of right whales. The service spent four years investigating the best way to protect the whales and decided on the speed limit despite opposition from the shipping industry.

In February 2007, the rule went to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, where it has not been heard from since. That office is required to complete its review within 90 days, with a possible 30-day extension.

Last month, the Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill sponsored by Senators John Kerry and Olympia Snowe of Maine that would force the Bush administration to act to protect right whales.

Yesterday, Representative Henry Waxman of California, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called on the Bush administration to release the rule.

Congress should not let the White House budget office be a Davy Jones locker for a reasonable and overdue effort to protect right whales.