NOAA Says Current Efforts to Protect North Atlantic Right Whales from Deadly Vessel Strikes Not Enough
Oceana Calls for Expanded Mandatory Speed Zones to Save Species from Extinction
Press Release Date: January 21, 2021
NOAA Fisheries today published an assessment of regulations issued in 2008 to reduce deadly vessel strikes with endangered North Atlantic right whales, of which only about 360 remain. In its report, NOAA Fisheries found that vessels are ignoring voluntary and, in some cases, mandatory speed zones, putting North Atlantic right whales in harm’s way. The assessment is consistent with Oceana’s analysis last year that found ships ignoring a voluntary speed zone in an area south of Nantucket designed to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.
Oceana released the following statement from campaign director Whitney Webber:
“We’ve long known that current efforts to protect North Atlantic right whales are not enough, and today the federal government agreed. NOAA’s evaluation of its own rule on vessel speeds related to North Atlantic right whales shows that we need stronger protections for these whales from speeding ships.
Heavy vessel traffic puts North Atlantic right whales at great risk of being killed by ship strikes – one of their leading causes of death. With only about 360 whales remaining, time is running out. Oceana previously launched a tool called Ship Speed Watch that allows anyone to monitor the slow zones established to protect North Atlantic right whales. An analysis released in March showed vessels ignoring voluntary speed zones designed to protect this critically endangered species. This data is supported by today’s government analysis.
These slow-moving whales that are often found near shore must navigate an obstacle course of speeding ships and fishing gear on their north and south migrations every year. Requiring vessels to slow down is the least we can do to help save this iconic species. Studies have found that slowing speeds to 10 knots or less in areas where these whales may be encountered can reduce the risk of death by 86%.
NOAA agrees that more needs to be done to protect North Atlantic right whales from vessel strikes. Now it’s time for the federal government to act. Voluntary speed restriction zones must be made mandatory, and the current mandatory speed restriction zones must be expanded and enforced. Oceana calls on NOAA to update the shipping regulations to protect these rare whales before it’s too late.”
North Atlantic right whales were named for being the “right” whale to hunt because they were often found near shore, swim slowly and tend to float when killed. They were aggressively hunted, and their population dropped from peak estimates of up to 21,000 to perhaps fewer than 100 by the 1920s. After whaling of North Atlantic right whales was banned in 1935, their population increased to as many as 483 individuals in 2010. Unfortunately, that progress has been reversed.
Collisions with vessels is one of two leading causes of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. North Atlantic right whales are slow, swimming around 6 miles per hour, usually near the water’s surface. They are also dark in color and lack a dorsal fin, making them very difficult to spot. Studies have found that the speed of a vessel is a major factor in collisions with North Atlantic right whales. At normal operating speeds, many vessels cannot maneuver to avoid them, and North Atlantic right whales swim too slowly to be able to move out of the way. This puts them at great risk of being struck, which can cause deadly injuries from blunt-force trauma or cuts from propellers.
Entanglement in fishing gear used to catch lobster, snow crab and bottom-dwelling fish like halibut, flounder and cod is the other leading cause of North Atlantic right whale deaths. Fishing gear from the U.S. and Canada entangles an estimated 100 North Atlantic right whales each year, and about 83% of all North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once. Ropes have been seen wrapped around North Atlantic right whales’ mouths, fins, tails and bodies, which slows them down, making it difficult to swim, reproduce and feed, and can kill them. The lines cut into the whales’ flesh, leading to life-threatening infections, and are so strong that they have severed fins and tails, and cut into bone.
To learn more about Oceana’s campaign to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction, please click here.