The Beacon

Renewing Ship Speed Rule Will Help Right Whales

(Photo: MyFWC Research)

After centuries of whaling, the North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered species in the U.S. and the rarest of all the large whales. Only 450-500 whales remain, and deaths from ship strikes are hindering their recovery. Now, a permanent extension to a successful federal rule will help protect right whales from ship strikes by limiting boats speeds in right whale habitat.

Each fall, North Atlantic right whales migrate south to the warm waters off of Georgia and northern Florida, where they feed on krill and give birth to their calves. In the spring, they migrate back to the cooler waters between New York and Nova Scotia to gorge themselves on plankton called copepods.

Unfortunately, this annual migration route puts right whales directly in the path of heavy shipping traffic along the East Coast. This species is especially vulnerable to ship strikes, because they are slow moving and feed just below the surface. Right whales have the largest per-capita record of ship strikes of any large whale population, and ship strikes are one of the main reasons the species is struggling to recover.

Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) extended an important  rule that requires ships to slow down in right whale habitat. Known as the Ship Strike Rule, these restrictions require ships longer than 65 feet to slow down to 10 knots along areas of the East Coast where right whales are often found. Similar restrictions have been in place since 2008, but they were set to expire last week as part of a five year sunset clause. NMFS received 145,000 public comments, most asking them to remove the sunset clause. Now the rule has no expiration date, putting permanent protections in place for this critically endangered species and greatly increasing their chance of recovery.

Oceana supported the initial implementation and the recent extension of the ship strike rule. And, thanks to efforts by Oceana and our allies, offshore wind developers in the mid-Atlantic will also be required to slow down large ships during time periods when the right whales are most likely to be present. 

Since NMFS implemented the ship strike rule in 2008, no North Atlantic right whale ship strike deaths are known to have occurred in areas where the rule is enforced. Models estimate that the rule reduces the threat of a ship strike by 80 to 90 percent. The Ship Strike Rule will also benefit other marine mammals and sea turtles, which are also at risk of ship strikes. It will also limit underwater noise, reduce fuel use, and lower shipping emissions. Hopefully the continuing success of the ship strike rule for right whales will inspire similar actions around the United States and elsewhere to protect marine life from the threat of speeding ships.

Right whales are still at risk from many other threats, including entanglement in fishing gear, climate change, and proposed seismic airgun surveys to search for offshore oil and gas in the Atlantic. Help Oceana protect right whales from the threats of seismic airguns by taking action today.  


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