North Atlantic right whales were named for being the “right” whale to hunt because they are often found near shore, swim slowly, and tend to float when killed. Though hunting the species was banned in 1935, they currently face extinction largely due to collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear. Currently, only about 400 of these whales remain, including fewer than 100 breeding females.
On July 9th, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature changed the status of North Atlantic right whales from endangered to critically endangered. This update follows the recent death of a North Atlantic right whale calf likely due to a ship strike off the coast of New Jersey. Another calf, seen earlier this year off the coast of Georgia with severe wounds from a ship strike, is presumed dead. North Atlantic right whales are dark in color and lack a dorsal fin, making them hard to spot at the surface. Normal ship operating speeds also make it difficult to maneuver to avoid collisions with them. Studies have found that slowing speeds to less than 10 knots in areas where these whales may be encountered can reduce the lethality of collisions by 86%.
That’s why today Oceana is launching Ship Speed Watch, an innovative online tool for the public to monitor ship speeds and positions in areas frequented by North Atlantic right whales. The tool uses self-reported data to show ship locations, speeds, and active voluntary and mandatory speed restriction zones along the East Coast of Canada and the U.S in near real-time.
“Ship Speed Watch empowers the public, decisionmakers and the government to track ship speeds in near real-time in the speed zones established to protect North Atlantic right whales,” said Whitney Webber, campaign director at Oceana. “For too long, we could only hope that vessels were obeying the speed limits, but with Ship Speed Watch, we can clearly see that ships are ignoring speed zones designed to protect this critically endangered species.”
A 2020 Oceana analysis of a voluntary speed zone in an area south of Nantucket found that 41% of ships were ignoring the voluntary speed limit of 10 knots, which was established by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to reduce the risk of injury or death to these whales. Of the ships exceeding the voluntary speed limit, 92% were large cargo and tanker ships, going as fast as 18 knots.
“To protect North Atlantic right whales, we need to expand mandatory speed restriction zones that require ships to slow down when whales are present along their migratory routes. The U.S. and Canada must step up now to protect this species before it’s too late,” Webber said.
Help monitor ship speeds in areas where North Atlantic right whales are found by clicking here: Ship Speed Watch.