Ships off the east coast of the United States must slow down more often to help save Vanishing whale species of extinction, the federal government said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made the announcement Friday with proposed new rules designed to prevent ship collisions with right-wing whales in the North Atlantic.
Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the two biggest threats to the giant animals, which number less than 340 and are declining in population.
Whale rescue efforts have long focused on fishing gear, especially those used by East Coast lobster fishermen. The proposed ship speed rules indicate that the government wants the shipping industry to take on more responsibility.
“Changes to the current ship speed regulation are necessary to stabilize the ongoing decline in right whale populations and prevent species extinctions,” outlined the proposed rules, which are due to be published in the Federal Register.
We propose changes to the North Atlantic right whale ship speed rule to reduce fatal strikes to ships. The changes mean that most ships over 35 feet in length will need to transit less than 10 knots in extended areas off the east coast of the United States: https://t.co/5Kvx0UZJOP pic.twitter.com/SiUJhyLsqJ
– NOAA Fisheries (NOAAFisheries) 29 July 2022
The new rules will expand seasonal slow zones off the East Coast that require sailors to slow to 10 knots (19 km/h). They will also require more ships to comply with the rules by expanding the size classes that must slow down.
The rules also state that NOAA will establish a framework for implementing mandatory speed restrictions when whales are known to be located outside of seasonal slow zones.
Federal authorities have spent a few years reviewing the speed regulations used to protect whales. Shipping rules have long focused on a patchwork of slow-moving areas that require sailors to slow whales. Some areas are mandatory, others voluntary.
Environmental groups have emphasized that many boats do not comply with speed restrictions and that the rules have to be stricter.
Environmental organization Oceana released a report in 2021 that said non-compliance was as high as nearly 90 percent in voluntary areas and was also dangerously low in mandatory areas.
“The government is proposing a significant improvement in the protection of right-wing whales in the North Atlantic today, which are constantly under threat from fast ships,” said Jeb Brogan, expedition manager at Oceana. “It’s no secret that speeding ships are scattered all over the right whale migration route in the North Atlantic, along the east coast.”
Many members of the shipping industry were well aware of the new speed rules on the road.
Chris Waddington, the chamber’s technical director, said the London-based International Chamber of Shipping, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the world’s merchant fleet, is working with the IMO and other stakeholders to better protect the right whales.
He pointed out that the members of the Chamber are accustomed to abide by the speed limits in the whale areas.
“The shipping industry takes whale protection very seriously and has taken measures to protect them, from engaging stakeholders to reducing speed and rerouting,” Waddington said. “There is always more that can be done, which is why we are working with the International Maritime Organization and conservationists on a review of the marine guidelines.”
The whales once bred off the east coast, but their numbers have been declining due to commercial whaling generations ago. Although it has been protected under the Endangered Species Act for decades, it has been slow to recover.
More than 50 whales were struck by ships between spring 1999 and spring 2018, according to NOAA records. Scientists have said in recent years that rising ocean temperatures are causing whales to move away from protected areas into shipping lanes in search of food.
A rare encounter was recorded on video when a southern right-wing whale appears to be playing with a woman on a paddleboard 👇 pic.twitter.com/MjD2uYCcqe
– Al Jazeera English (AJEnglish) September 28, 2021
Environmentalists said this is a good reason to tighten protections. The proposed shipping rules will be subject to a public comment process before they become law.
“This proposal is a step in the right direction, but it won’t help a single right whale until it’s actually finished,” said Kristin Munsell, an attorney with the environmental group’s Center for Biodiversity.
The whales give birth off the coasts of Georgia and Florida and move north to feed on New England and Canada. It’s popular with whale watching tours that leave from places like Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine in the summer.
Members of the New England lobster fishing industry have emphasized that many of the rules designed to save whales focus on fishing rather than ship strikes. Some have described the new ship’s speed rules as being late.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen Association, the East Coast’s largest fishing industry association, said fishermen are being unfairly held accountable for the whale deaths that occur due to ship raids.
“This puts an enormous amount of pressure on the lobster industry to continue changing our fisheries to account for right whale deaths not related to lobster fishing,” McCarron said.