Legislation designed to protect migrating right whales could have an unintended, devastating impact on ferry services to the Vineyard and Nantucket, the Steamship Authority has warned.

Under draft rules attached to the legislation, any sighting of a right whale would trigger the imposition of a strict, 10-knot speed limit on ships more than 65 feet long, operating within a so-called “dynamic management area” with a 36-mile radius, for 15 days from the time of the sighting.

A single sighting could lead to the cancellation of high-speed ferry services around the Islands, and play havoc with the schedules of even conventional ferries — which usually run at 12 or 13 knots — for weeks at a time, SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said.

He said other operators, including Hy-Line Cruises, also had expressed concern about potential disruption to service.

The proposed legislation, called the Ship Strike Reduction Act of 2008, is sponsored by Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and does have real merit, but for its unintended consequences for ferry operations.

Right whales were once hunted to the brink of extinction. Fewer than 350 are believed to survive, and their migration route from waters off the southern United States to the gulf of Maine each summer takes them across busy shipping routes. Research indicates almost 40 per cent of whale deaths result from collisions with ships.

The legislation to protect them, by imposing speed limits on ships coming into ports from Savannah, Ga., north up the coast, has been in process since 2004, but SSA concerns have taken on an added urgency since it was passed by a key Senate committee on April 24.

The bill will now go before the Senate for a vote. A similar one will go to the House.

Most worrying for the SSA and other operators is the fact that in spite of repeated requests for clarification over two years, they have not been told what the final rules, which are being set by the National Marine Fisheries Service, will be.

This is despite Senator Kerry’s assertion in a press release announcing the passage of the bill through committee, that it was “vitally important” the concerns of ferry operators and other commercial interests be considered.

In their draft form, the rules meant that even if a whale sighting was made, for example, south of Nantucket, ferries operating north of the island would be affected, regardless of the intervening land mass and the fact that there has never been a sighting in Nantucket Sound.

But although they have pointed this out, the SSA’s protests appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

In his most recent letter to Senator Kerry, Mr. Lamson notes this lack of consultation and says:

“Therefore, we don’t know to what extent our previous comments to the National Marine Fisheries Service during the public comment period, and also to your office on August 22, 2007, have been taken into account in the proposed final rule.

“The potential designation of a dynamic management area in Vineyard Sound or Nantucket Sound (or a location that encompasses a certain portion thereof) would have a devastating impact on the Steamship Authority’s essential operations.”

The SSA has previously made the case that its boats should be exempted from the restrictions, because they are designed to be far more maneuverable than the much larger ships, which do pose a major hazard to the endangered whales.

A map submitted by the SSA shows there is real reason for concern about the impact of DMAs on their operations.

In their annual migrations they typically pass close to the eastern side of Nantucket. A whale swimming just a little closer than usual to the coast could potentially disrupt ferry traffic in Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds.

In 2006, for example, a right whale was sighted between the Vineyard and Woods Hole, directly on the ferry route. The same year, one was seen in waters between the Vineyard and Nantucket, a little south of the Islands. In both cases, ferry services would have been disrupted, had the proposed rules applied.

Mr. Lamson told Tuesday’s meeting of the SSA board in Tisbury that no whale had ever been hit by a boat line ferry.

Apart from the whale issue, Mr. Lamson presented a mixed bag of news to Tuesday’s meeting.

The good news was that traffic so far this year is up sharply compared with last year. Passenger numbers on the Vineyard route are up 5.9 per cent for the year to date. Car traffic is up 3.8 per cent overall, and 9.1 per cent for tourists, and truck traffic also is up 3.8 per cent.

On the other hand, expenses also have increased sharply, and the boat line’s operating loss for the year so far is more than $8 million, about $386,000 above the budget forecast.

Operating costs for the boats is a major cost increase, up some 80 per cent compared with last year, and there has also been an overrun in maintenance costs of more than 30 per cent.

While acknowledging the operation was running “somewhat behind” budget projections, Mr. Lamson said the cash balance remains strong. “I’m optimistic,” he said.

In other business, the governors approved guidelines regulating advertising, and expanding them to include ads on the boat line’s Web site, brochures, schedules and video information screens in terminals.

The guidelines prohibit the advertising of alcoholic drinks, and also of services offered by competitors, unless it is determined the revenue from such advertising would more than offset potential losses of patronage.

There was also a long list of attached exclusions against various types of advertising, including ads featuring tobacco, profanity, weapons, violence, nudity or political campaign material.

Director of engineering Carl Walker gave a presentation on various capital projects, notably the new works at the Oak Bluffs terminal, which have been bedeviled by delays, and are running about three weeks behind schedule.

He promised the terminal would be operational by the scheduled start of the seasonal service on May 21.

Nonetheless, it will be tight, he said. “We may still be working on the twentieth.”

Vineyard governor Marc Hanover commended Mr. Walker on making it happen. Otherwise, he said, “I was going to have to leave the Island.”

And the SSA, with the help of the Vineyard Conservation Society, also is making progress toward its recycling goals. The VCS donated $5,000 to have recycling bins — themselves made of recycled plastic, installed inside and outside the Vineyard Haven and Woods Hole terminals.

The bins also are going onto the ferries Island Home and Martha’s Vineyard.