The Right Buffer Zones for Right Whales?

The Washington Post reports that the Bush Administration is proposing to enact less protective whale buffer zones around ports designed than had initially been proposed. The protections will be the first for whales along the Atlantic Coast, but they will be less stringent than environmentalist groups had sought (but more stringent than shippers would like).

n July 2006, NOAA announced plans to create 30-nautical-mile buffer zones off of several East Coast ports, in which ships would be required to slow to 10 nautical miles per hour during certain times of the year.

But cargo companies said that this would cause their ships to lose time and burn more fuel, and the proposal was held up for months by the administration.

Yesterday, in a document called an environmental impact statement, NOAA announced a change. Its new plan would reduce the buffer zone to 20 nautical miles, or about 23 standard miles. . . .

The right whales' population crashed because of 19th-century whaling -- whalers called them "right" whales because they were the easiest to hunt. But in recent decades, scientists say, one major known cause of death has been collisions with ships.

To reduce those, NOAA proposes to create seasonal speed-limit zones off Georgia and Florida, in the whales' calving grounds, and in their feeding areas off Cape Cod. It would also establish similar zones off major ports from New York to Brunswick, Ga. -- including the Hampton Roads ports.

The story highlights the economic aspects of the decision, but there's an also an interesting environmental trade-off involved. According to the article, speed zones not only cost shippers valuable time -- "Time is money in shipping," a Bush Administration said -- but it also costs more fuel. More fuel, likely means more emissions, particularly of carbon dioxide. So, slowing ships in certain areas to protect whales may increase emissions of greenhouse gases. This doesn't mean whale buffer zones are a bad idea, just that there are trade-offs, both economic and environmental.