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Right whale deaths go unnoticed, report says

Scientists seeking emergency rules

More than eight in 10 right whale deaths may be going undiscovered, according to marine scientists who are calling for emergency action to help prevent humans from accidentally killing the rare animal.

In an article published in the journal Science, researchers estimated that deaths of North Atlantic right whales may be underreported by as much as 83 percent annually. At least eight whales have died in the last 16 months, and only 350 of the animals are believed to exist.

There isn't time for proposed protections to slog through the federal rule-making process, Amy Knowlton, a New England Aquarium researcher and one of the article's 18 coauthors, said Friday.

''We can't wait to deal with a bureaucratic maze," Knowlton said.

Federal regulators say that emergency rules could be put in place six months earlier than the normal 18- to 24-month process, but would not be permanent and would not save much time, since the final rules are close to completion. Rules also could do more harm than good without proper review and public comment, officials say.

The estimate of unreported whale deaths is based on a population model that considers the known death rates of male, female and juvenile right whales. Scientists do not presume a whale dead until it hasn't been seen for six years.

The Science article, citing the Endangered Species Act, called for emergency rules to protect against ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements, the two primary ways that humans kill right whales.

Proposed rules include slowing down ships in whale-heavy areas and reducing the amount of floating fishing line in the water. Gear and voluntary speed restrictions are already in place, but the new rules would significantly broaden requirements and improve their effectiveness, advocates say.

''We really do have tangible solutions in hand," Knowlton said.

Teri Frady, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, said that final rules to protect whales from fishing gear entanglements should be in force by the end of the year and that the ship strike rules should be in place by spring 2006.

''It's not that doing something dramatic isn't possible," Frady said. ''It's figuring out what it's going to be and whether it's going to work."

The proposed rules have been questioned by fishermen, who worry that new whale-safe gear requirements would be too expensive, and the shipping industry, which says it would lose money and compromise safety by slowing down or altering routes to avoid the animals.

The North Atlantic right whale was nearly hunted out of existence in the late 18th century and has struggled since. Scientists said the eight recent deaths were devastating because four were females just starting to bear calves.

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