The U.S. Coast Guard agreed Friday to evaluate - in consultation with federal scientists - the rerouting of shipping lanes and the placement of new ones on the endangered right whale.
The species, which migrates annually between breeding grounds in the southern Atlantic to feeding areas off the Massachusetts coast, is in danger of going extinct and collisions with ships are one of its last remaining threats.
The settlement ends a lawsuit brought by environmental groups in 2005 over plans to relocate existing shipping lanes in Delaware Bay on the New Jersey-Delaware border, Chesapeake Bay and Cape Fear in North Carolina. They claimed the Coast Guard was not seeking the input of wildlife experts on the impacts of shipping lanes on the right whale, as the law requires.
"This is about where the ships go. There are places where you could move the lane a little bit" and save right whales, said Howard Crystal, the attorney representing Defenders of Wildlife, the Ocean Conservancy and other groups in the case.
The Coast Guard had argued that it did not have to make such evaluations because final decisions about shipping lanes were made by the International Maritime Organization, which is not covered by U.S. endangered species law. The Coast Guard refused to comment on the settlement.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Friday also published a final rule that sets a speed limit of 11.5 miles per hour within 23 miles of major mid-Atlantic ports and throughout the whale's breeding and feeding areas to reduce ship strikes. It takes effect next week.