Speed limit set to protect North Atlantic right whales

A North Atlantic right whale and calf. PHOTO COURTESY NOAA.

A North Atlantic right whale and calf. PHOTO COURTESY NOAA.

Lower speeds reduce deaths from collisions by 80 to 90 percent

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Endangered North Atlantic right whales may have a little better chance of avoiding deadly collisions with ships, as the National Marine Fisheries Service this week set a permanent speed limit for large ships. Under the rule, ships longer than 65 feet have to slow to 10 knots (about 11 mph) when they’re around whales.

“This is really great news for Atlantic right whales and will help put this magnificent species on the road to recovery,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Speed limits for large ships are a simple and effective way to avoid deadly collisions that have been a significant threat to these whales’ survival.”

The rule was set to expire Dec. 9, but the Center for Biological Diversity, along with several other groups, petitioned to make it permanent.

Atlantic right whales have been protected as an endangered species for more than 40 years, with a global population of fewer than 500 individuals. The whales’ coastal feeding, breeding and nursing grounds along the East Coast coincide with some of the nation’s busiest shipping ports.

Populations of North Atlantic right whales were decimated by commercial whaling in past centuries, and, despite being protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1970, have not recovered. The whales, reaching 55 feet in length, migrate from calving grounds off the southeastern United States to feeding grounds off the northeastern United States and Canada.

Adult female right whales reproduce slowly, giving birth to one calf every four years and not reaching reproductive maturity until age 8. The primary threats to imperiled right whales are ship strikes, entanglement in commercial fishing gear, habitat degradation, rising noise levels, global warming, ocean acidification and pollution.

Before the first speed limits were implemented in 2008, one or two right whales annually were struck and killed or very seriously injured. An April 2013 scientific report found that speed limits have reduced the number of vessel-related right whale deaths by 80 percent to 90 percent. But in 2008, the Bush administration demanded the inclusion of a sunset”provision in the original rule, which threatened to undo the progress made in the past five years to protect right whales.

“The Obama administration made the right decision to allow science to guide the decision on how to protect right whales,” said Hartl. “This is an important step, but the science is clear that much more needs to be done to protect this critically endangered species, as well as other endangered whales that are killed by ship strikes along the eastern seaboard.”

The 2013 agency review of the rule found that the areas where speed limits are required should be extended, especially in Northeast, including along Jeffrey’s Ledge and Jordan Basin, where right whales are known to congregate in the fall and winter. Because vessels shorter than 65 feet also kill whales, speed limits should be required for other types of smaller vessels.

Slowing ships reduces vessel collisions with other protected species, including blue, humpback, fin and minke whales. Slower ships also produce less underwater noise pollution and air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions.

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