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Ships must slow down more often to save whales, federal government says

An endangered North Atlantic right whale is entangled in fishing rope alongside a newborn calf in the water.
An endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing rope is near a newborn calf on Dec. 2, 2021, in waters near Cumberland Island, Ga.
(Georgia Department of Natural Resources / NOAA via Associated Press)
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Vessels off the East Coast must slow down more often to help save a vanishing species of whale from extinction, the federal government said Friday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the announcement with proposed rules designed to prevent ships from colliding with North Atlantic right whales. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the two biggest threats to the giant animals, which number fewer than 340 and are falling in population.

Efforts to save the species have long focused on fishing gear, especially that used in lobster fishing off the East Coast. The proposed speed rules signal that the government wants the shipping industry to take more responsibility.

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“Changes to the existing vessel speed regulation are essential to stabilize the ongoing right whale population decline and prevent the species’ extinction,” state the proposed rules, slated to be published in the federal register.

The rules would expand the East Coast’s seasonal slow zones, where mariners must slow down to 10 knots, or 11½ mph, and would require vessels of more sizes to comply.

NOAA would also create a framework for implementing speed restrictions when the whales are known to be present outside the seasonal slow zones.

Federal authorities spent a few years reviewing the speed regulations used to protect the whales. The rules have long focused on a patchwork of slow zones, some mandatory and others voluntary.

Environmental groups have made the case that many boats don’t comply with the speed restrictions and that the rules need to be tighter.

The environmental organization Oceana released a report in 2021 that said noncompliance was as high as nearly 90% in voluntary zones and was also dangerously high in the mandatory ones.

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“The government is proposing a significant improvement in protections for North Atlantic right whales today, which are constantly at risk from speeding vessels,” said Gib Brogan, a campaign director at Oceana. “It’s no secret that speeding vessels are rampant throughout North Atlantic right whales’ migration route, all along the East Coast.”

Many in the shipping industry were aware the new speed rules were on the way.

The London-based International Chamber of Shipping, which represents more than 80% of the world merchant fleet, had been working with the International Maritime Organization and other stakeholders to better protect the right whales, said Chris Waddington, the chamber’s technical director.

The chamber’s members are used to complying with speed limits in whale zones, he said.

“The shipping industry takes the protection of whales seriously and has undertaken measures to safeguard them, from engaging stakeholders to reducing speed and rerouting,” Waddington said. “There is always more that can be done, and that is why we are working with the [International Maritime Organization] and conservationists on reviewing maritime guidelines.”

The whales were once numerous off the East Coast, but their populations plummeted generations ago due to commercial whaling. Although they’ve been protected under the Endangered Species Act for decades, they’ve been slow to recover.

More than 50 North Atlantic right whales were struck by ships between spring 1999 and spring 2018, NOAA records state.

Scientists have said in recent years that higher ocean temperatures are causing the whales to stray out of protected areas and into shipping lanes in search of food. Environmentalists have said that’s a good reason to tighten protections.

The proposed shipping rules will be subject to a public comment process before they can become law.

“This proposal is a step in the right direction, but it won’t help a single right whale until it’s actually finalized,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the environmental group Center for
Biological Diversity.

The whales give birth off Georgia and Florida and head north to feed off New England and Canada. They’re popular with whale-watching tours that leave from coastal cities such as Provincetown, Mass., and Portland, Maine, in the summer.

Those in New England’s lobster fishing industry have made the case that too many rules designed to save the whales have focused on fishing and not on vessel strikes. Some characterized the new vessel speed rules as overdue.

Fishermen have been unfairly held accountable for whale deaths caused by vessel strikes, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Assn., the largest fishing industry association on the East Coast.

“This is putting a tremendous amount of pressure on the lobster industry,” McCarron said, “to continue to alter our fishery to account for right whale deaths not connected to the lobster fishery.”

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