Thursday, 13 April 2017 10:07

Response to NOAA on Whale Protection Zone


Samuel D. Rauch III
Acting Assistant Administrator for Fisheries
National Marine Fisheries Service
1315 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Subject:  Petition Under the Administrative Procedure Act Requesting that NMFS Establish a Whale Protection Zone to Support Recovery of Endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales

Dear Mr. Rauch;

The Chamber of Shipping appreciates the opportunity to comment on the “Petition to Establish a Whale Protection Zone for the Southern Resident Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) Distinct Population Segment Under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.” We have two significant concerns that we believe have not been adequately supported in the petition. The first is the potential negative impacts on the safety of large commercial vessels, and the second is the lack of supporting documentation to support the petition. Overall, this petition does not include sufficient information to analyze and evaluate the risk to safety of navigation for vessel traffic of all sizes.

The Chamber of Shipping represents that majority of vessel owners, operators, agents, terminals and shippers involved in marine transportation in British Columbia and strongly supports binational efforts to recover Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). The international and Canadian domestic marine industry has been an active participant and contributor to research and development associated with the recovery of SRKW and more broadly involved in research and policy development nationally in Canada and internationally through the International Maritime Organization. This includes participation regionally in the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) program and Green Marine. Through these initiatives, the marine industry and other concerned stakeholders have gained significant knowledge regarding the sources and level of ship-generated noise and also examined potential approaches to mitigate the effects of acoustic disturbance.

The petition requests the establishment of a whale protection zone that extends three-quarters of a mile offshore of San Juan Island from Mitchell Point in the north to Cattle Point in the south, and a one quarter-mile wide buffer adjacent to the whale protection zone. The petitioners also propose that, within the whale protection zone, NMFS prohibit all motorized vessels, with specific exceptions such as government enforcement vessels and vessels responding to safety and environmental emergencies, and vessels transiting to and from areas of San Juan Island accessible only through the whale protection zone. The petitioners propose that these exempt vessels be required to adhere to a “no-wake” speed limit, both to significantly reduce the amount of noise and disturbance that these vessels could introduce, and to minimize the likelihood of striking a whale in the whale protection zone. 

The petition’s proposal for a whale protection zone currently encroaches on an internationally approved and recognized vessel traffic separation scheme. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) establishes how and when a traffic separation scheme may be established and it is intended to contribute to the overall safety and efficiency of navigation and protection of the marine environment. As parties to SOLAS, both the United States and Canada were instrumental at developing the associated traffic separation scheme and jointly managing vessel traffic services and mandatory pilotage for large commercial vessels. This safety framework has served both of our nations well and ensured appropriate environmental protection for our binational waters.

The encroachment of the proposed whale protection zone into the traffic separation scheme could have adverse consequences for the safety of large commercial vessel that transit these waters as it would both constrain the amount of sea room for vessels to manoeuvre and potentially limit their speed to below practical and safe limits. Vessels must maintain an appropriate speed in order to have the ability to safely manoeuvre. A minimum safe speed is based on many variable factors that could include the vessel size, loading arrangement, rudder and propulsion type, and environmental conditions such as wind and current.

Additionally, the only vessels able to use the “inshore zone” between the northbound lane of the traffic separation scheme and the shore are vessels less than 20 metres, sailing vessels and fishing vessels. If these vessels were prohibited from the “inshore zone” by the proposed whale protection zone, the risk of them moving into the waters of the traffic separation scheme, and the attendant increased risk of collision with commercial ships, would be significant. Furthermore, the design of the associated traffic separation scheme for vessels transiting through Haro Strait reflects a number of key factors, including the navigational dangers, typical traffic patterns, and radar and communication coverage. The development and implementation of this traffic separation scheme was complex and reflected all of these elements, and was the product of considerable effort by the United States, Canada, and the International Maritime Organization.

While we do not support this petition, we are encouraged by many recent initiatives that are underway in Canada to address the recovery of SRKW and would encourage federal, state, provincial, and Indigenous governments to engage and support these initiatives. These include:

Additionally, we are aware that the Canadian federal government is currently developing a strategy to address the main anthropogenic threats facing SRKW under the National Oceans Protection Plan and is actively engaging leaders in the United States in the development of its plan.

Our members’ vessels are a key element of the North American supply chain, providing safe and efficient marine transportation services to and from ports in both the United States and Canada. While transiting our binational waters, they employ best practices to avoid physically disturbing marine mammals and are now considering mitigation measures to reduce underwater noise. This important effort requires broad support of governments and stakeholders, robust science, and coordinated binational action that will provide meaningful protection measures for SRKW and respect critical trade between our two nations. We would discourage approval of this petition until such time as a more coordinated, binational, and science-based approach can be implemented.

Thank you in advance for considering this recommendation and I would welcome the opportunity to provide additional information should you or your staff have any questions.  

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