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Right whale emergency

IN THE days of Moby Dick, men nearly hunted the North Atlantic right whale to extinction. Now Harpoon is just a Boston brewery, but the killing goes on. Collisions with ships and entanglement with fishing gear are taking a toll on the marine mammals, which number only about 350. As quickly as possible, federal officials should start requiring that ships slow down and avoid certain areas and that fishermen use gear less likely to ensnarl the whales.

Eubalaena glacialis became known as the right whale because it preferred coastal areas, fed close to the surface, floated when killed, and contained large amounts of oil. All of this made it the ''right" one for whalers. Since 1935, when an international ban on hunting right whales was set, its recovery has been halting. Last month, researchers from the New England Aquarium, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and several universities raised the possibility in the journal Science that the attrition could be worse than previously thought.

According to the scientists, as many as 47 whales might have died in the past 16 months, far more than the eight confirmed deaths. Of the eight, six were female, three carrying near-term fetuses. Three or possibly four of the deaths were caused by ship collisions, a fifth by fishing gear. Two of the dead whales were at sea and could not be recovered to determine the cause of death. The eighth casualty was a young calf that died on a beach in Florida. The authors note that whales entangled in fishing lines lose some of their blubber, causing them to sink instead of float after death. This makes it difficult to observe their deaths and may lead to an undercounting of deaths by entanglement.

A new rule on fishing gear, including a mandate for breakable ''weak link" lines for gill nets, could be in place by the end of 2005.

Despite the likely objections of shipping companies, the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service should also implement restrictions on ship speeds and routes under the terms of the Endangered Species Act. The only question is whether this should be done under a regular rule-making process, which is already in motion but takes considerable time, or as a temporary emergency measure. The latter would eliminate public input for a highly controversial rule and could tie up NOAA officials, slowing the permanent rule process.

But according to the NOAA Fisheries Service, the emergency rule could be in place by the middle of 2006, while a full rule would take until 2007. The authors of the Science article make a strong case for acting as quickly as possible to help save a species that is so clearly threatened by human actions. The fate of the northern right whale is an emergency that requires emergency measures.

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