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June 29, 2007

Shipping lanes tweaked to protect whales

The major shipping lane into Boston Harbor will be shifted several nautical miles starting Sunday in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of a vessel striking a whale - the scenario that led to two whales washing up dead on Cape Ann shores this year.

Researchers believe the shipping lane, which brings large commercial vessel traffic into Boston Harbor through the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, traverses an area with a lot of whale activity. This move will add 3.75 miles to the overall distance of the shipping lane and 10 to 22 minutes to overall travel time one way, according to the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"It may not be that much of a shift spatially, but it's a huge shift ecologically," said Mason Weinrich, executive director of the Whale Center of New England on Harbor Loop in Gloucester.

Weinrich said data, which covers sightings over the last 25 years, showed the shipping lane crossed waters frequently used by whales. The lane shifted to an area in the sanctuary with a different seabed, he said, that whales tend to avoid.

The move does not eliminate the risk of vessel strikes, Weinrich said, but "it helps in a big way."

On May 14, a 2-year-old humpback whale washed up dead on Cape Hedge Beach in Rockport, the victim of a vessel strike to the head and back, researchers said after conducting a necropsy on the 25-foot, 8-ton animal. Rockport buried the remains, minus the skeleton taken by New England Aquarium officials, behind the beach parking lot.

On June 1, a sei whale was seen off Lobster Cove in Manchester and washed ashore following a storm. It weighed nearly 25 tons, was about 45 feet long and had been struck in the back by a vessel. Manchester had the animal cut apart and hauled away in a trailer for disposal, again without its skeleton.

Weinrich said it is impossible to know where each whale was struck and killed. However, the humpback whale was seen feeding off Rockport about 24 hours before it's body washed ashore. The sei whale's carcass had been at sea for quite a bit longer, and tissue samples were first taken from it near Boston Harbor two days before it appeared in Manchester.

"Whale collisions with ships pose a significant hazard that we needed to better control," said Coast Guard Capt. Liam Slein, First Coast Guard District Chief of Prevention. "We expect this small change will protect numerous whales while also reducing the damage and hazards such collisions cause."

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