WASHINGTON -- National and state wildlife protection groups say South Carolina is trying to use a phony homeland security designation to dodge a new federal regulation aimed at protecting one of the most endangered species of whales.
The S.C. House Judiciary Committee was scheduled to take up Tuesday afternoon a measure placing the state's harbor boat pilots within the South Carolina Naval Militia, a new agency whose creation coincides with the imposition of the federal rule to safeguard the North Atlantic right whale.
That federal regulation, developed under the Endangered Species Act, sets a new speed limit of 10 knots per hour -- 11.5 mph -- for boats 65 feet or longer to prevent them from striking right whales, scarcely 300 of which remain on the planet.
An average of two North Atlantic right whales are struck and killed each year, mostly by larger boats traveling at higher speed.
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"That may not seem like many, but with only 300 right whales left, it's a lot," said Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We absolutely must do something to stop the number of ship strikes."
A Spartanburg couple operating a 31-foot boat six miles east of Hilton Head struck a 40-foot right whale March 31, putting out a mayday call when their blood-stained craft began to sink. The stricken whale's fate is unknown.
"Even one death of a female of calf-bearing age seriously undermines the ability of this species to survive," said Hamilton Davis, project manager of the Coastal Conservation League.
The federal rule partially exempts law enforcement personnel and their vessels, a status Port of Charleston officials and their S.C. General Assembly allies hope to obtain via the new state regulation moving through the legislature.
Senior officials with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, which developed the federal regulation, are skeptical.
The federal officials indicated Monday they will take enforcement action if the Charleston harbor boat pilots don't obey the new speed limit.
South Carolina is the only state along the Atlantic seaboard that is fighting the federal rule, which took effect in December after years of development and the filing of 10,252 public comments.
State legislators say the regulation unfairly targets the Charleston port because its 19 pilots use two 75-foot boats -- longer than at other ports -- as they steer big cargo ships to and from the loading docks.
"Why should a Charleston harbor pilot have to slow down when one from Savannah (Georgia) or Wilmington (North Carolina) would not?" said S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms, a Berkeley County Republican and Senate Transportation Committee chairman.
"Our boats are bigger because Charleston harbor is closer to the open ocean than most other ports," Grooms said.
The Georgetown port and several smaller ones in South Carolina also have pilots, but their boats aren't large enough to have to meet the new federal speed limit.
Pushed by the Port of Charleston, which has endured management problems and lost business in the recession, the S.C. Senate approved the state regulation March 31 by voice vote.
The state rule authorizes the port pilots and their boats "to be employed in support of maritime homeland security missions" while they accompany container ships from around the globe. It makes them "part of Division II of the S.C. Naval Militia."
About 2,000 commercial ships visit the Charleston port each year, some as long as three football fields and bearing foreign flags.
The container ships must slow down under the new speed limit starting at 20 nautical miles out from the harbor, which Charleston port officials say will add an average of three hours to each visit. Federal officials put the delay at 53 minutes.
The speed limit applies to all watercraft, including container ships, cruise ships, port boats, fishing vessels and even whale-watching boats.
Retired Coast Guard Capt. John Cameron, who ran the Charleston port from 2004 to 2007, said the state regulation to give its boat pilots law-enforcement status has nothing to do with the federal rule protecting right whales.
Cameron, who was chief of inspections at the Port of New York when the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks occurred, said he launched an independent effort five years ago "to stand up" the S.C. Naval Militia and fold the port-boat pilots into it.
"The pilots are the only agents who board every foreign ship that enters the Port of Charleston," said Cameron, now special adviser to Whit Smith, president of the Charleston Branch Pilots Association. "The regulation that's in the Statehouse is a continuum of homeland security integration policy that's been going on for a very long time."
Sharon Young, marine field director for the U.S. Humane Society, mocked Cameron's claims.
"Heaven help this nation if our security rests on having two port pilot vessels deputized to look out for the bad guys," she said.
Young said the Charleston port pilots, led by Cameron, have been among the fiercest opponents of the ship speed limit.
"This is not about the (S.C. Naval) Militia," Young said. "This is about the fact that they really don't want to comply with this regulation. The pilots in South Carolina have been fighting this for years. It is selfish for them to say everybody else can do it, but they can't. What's at stake is the safety of an entire, very beleaguered and critically endangered species."
Senior NOAA officials traveled to South Carolina in February and met with leaders of the Port of Charleston and the S.C. State Ports Authority in a futile bid to end the dispute.
David Cottingham, chief of NOAA's marine mammal and sea turtle division, said he and the agency's No. 2 enforcement lawyer warned the Charleston port officials that they risked enforcement action for disregarding the speed limit.
The federal exemption reads: "These restrictions do not apply to law enforcement vessels of a state ... when engaged in law enforcement or search-and-rescue duties."
Cottingham, a Greenville native, laughed when asked whether designating South Carolina's port pilots as homeland security agents in the S.C. Naval Militia meets that standard.
"That's something that our attorneys will have to work on," he said. "It doesn't to me meet the plain definition of what our regulation says."
(Hilton Head Island Packet reporter Liz Mitchell and Renee Schoof of McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.)