Proposed whale rule would slow ships

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on October 6, 2006.

Mike Getchell has spent years around ships sailing on the St. Johns River, working as a tug captain and now serving as manager of marine operations for Crowley Liner Services' East Coast division.

With his decades on the water, he said, he's seen a lot. But one thing he hasn't spied: A right whale.

"During my sailing experience, I have yet to see one," he said Thursday, sounding a bit disappointed. "It's a large area, and it's pretty spread out."

Despite never having seen one of the elusive creatures, Getchell has been spending a lot of time recently thinking about right whales. Because of the animal's precarious place on the planet, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration is proposing a rule that could restrict ships to particular shipping lanes as they enter the St. Johns River and - more importantly - cap ships speeds at 10 knots (about 11.5 miles per hour), a provision that has the local maritime community up in arms. Currently, ships enter at 13 to 18 knots.

The right whale is one of the most endangered mammals on Earth: Only about 300 exist, and fewer than a dozen are born each year, including those born near Jacksonville, where the whales have a calving area miles from shore.

Following a lawsuit by a coalition of animal rights and environmental organizations, including The Humane Society of the United States, NOAA devised the plan designed to ensure ships are unlikely to run over right whales while entering the river.

NOAA has been accepting comments on the plan for more than three months, and the input period closed Thursday. During that time, said Gregory Silber, NOAA's coordinator of recovery activities for endangered whales, the organization has received about 10,000 comments, with about 90 percent of them form letters from environmental groups supporting the proposed rule.

The other 10 percent feature positions across the board, said Silber, a biologist who focuses on large whales, from environmentalists, fishermen, shipping lines and others. "[It] was an opportunity for people with expertise and concerns and passion to provide specific information to allow us to meet our mission," Silber said. "Now we have to weigh the comments we have and look at the new information."

Many in the Jacksonville maritime business hope that the review of the comments will lead the federal organization to change the proposed rule.

The main concern is the safety of ships entering the river, said Capt. John Atchison, president of the St. Johns Bar Pilot Association. By requiring them to slow to 10 knots, rather than the 13 knots or above that many now enter the river at, the ships are placed more at the mercy of the wind and current, leading to a greater chance for mishap.

"There's no waiver of the proposed rule for safety of navigation," Atchison said. "The rules give us no room to do what we need to do to safely come and go. Either we're going to receive a fine or we're going to subject ourselves to an unnecessary level of risk."

The new rule will also have a dire economic impact, said Phil Bates, senior vice president of operations at Sea Star Line LLC, which has three ships sailing from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico. By limiting the speed at which the ships could travel at the mouth of the river, Bates said, the company would end up spending about $500,000 more a year in fuel as the vessel speeds up on the rest of the trip.

"To maintain the schedule, you have to push the pedal to the floor," he said. "To get that little bit of time, you burn a lot of fuel."

Sea Star is concerned about striking whales, going so far to station lookouts on the bow of the ship and buy $4,000 night-vision goggles to aid in spotting the creatures.

Steps like that - as well as other technological methods - are a better way of keeping the animals safe, Bates said. "They haven't made a good case why disrupting shipping will make a difference," he said. "We're hoping they'll look at all the other aspects of this."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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