Oceana Applauds New Proposed Vessel Requirements to Protect North Atlantic Right Whales from Vessel Strikes  - Oceana USA

Oceana Applauds New Proposed Vessel Requirements to Protect North Atlantic Right Whales from Vessel Strikes 

Group Calls on Feds to Remove Exemptions and Improve Enforcement to Save This Critically Endangered Species 

Press Release Date: July 29, 2022

Location: Washington


Megan Jordan | email: mjordan@oceana.org | tel: 202.868.4061

Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released a new proposed vessel speed rule that aims to reduce the risk of vessel strikes to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, of which only around 330 remain. Collisions with vessels are one of two leading causes of injury and death for North Atlantic right whales, which are dark in color and difficult to spot, swim slowly at the water’s surface, and lack a dorsal fin. The previous vessel speed rule was issued in 2008 and this updated proposed rule contains critical changes such as including vessels greater than 35 feet in length (compared to the previous 65 feet), expanding seasonal speed zones, and upgrading current voluntary speed zones to mandatory in areas where whales are seen. While there were strong improvements from the previous rule, Oceana says the proposed rule can go even further by removing the exemptions for federal vessels and the agency committing to effectively enforcing these regulations. NMFS is accepting comments on its proposed rule for 60 days. 

Studies have found that slowing vessel speeds to 10 knots reduces a North Atlantic right whale’s risk of death from vessel strikes by 80% to 90%. In a January 2021 analysis, NMFS found that vessel compliance with the current vessel speed regulations is inadequate, particularly in voluntary speed zones. In July 2021, Oceana reinforced those findings when it published a report showing that most vessels are exceeding speed limits in areas designed to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Oceana analyzed vessel speeds from 2017 to 2020 in management zones along the U.S. Atlantic coast, and found non-compliance was as high as almost 90% in mandatory speed zones, and almost 85% in voluntary areas. While this analysis focused on vessels 65 feet or larger that are required to use public tracking devices and follow the speed rules, vessels of all sizes can cause fatal injuries to North Atlantic right whales. In fact, a calf died last year from propeller wounds, broken ribs, and a fractured skull from a collision with a 54-foot recreational fishing vessel that was not subject to the speed requirement. 

“There is a glimmer of hope for critically endangered North Atlantic right whales today — the government is proposing strong new measures to reduce the deadly threat of vessel strikes. Today’s proposed rule shows that the National Marine Fisheries Service is serious about addressing a top threat to North Atlantic right whales, which are constantly at risk from speeding vessels,” said Gib Brogan, 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. Oceana welcomes the proposed rule and urges the agency to remove dangerous exemptions, and commit to enforcing the rule to make waters safer for North Atlantic right whales.”

Oceana is urgently calling on NMFS to continue to revise the vessel speed regulations for the U.S. Atlantic to: 

  • remove exemptions for government vessels,
  • require vessels to carry and continuously transmit Automatic Identification System (AIS) devices for public vessel tracking,
  • improve enforcement of speed limits.

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 reversed. 

Collisions with vessels is a leading cause of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. They are slow, swimming around 6 miles (or 9.5 kilometers) 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 vessel-related collisions with North Atlantic right whales. At high speeds, vessels cannot maneuver to avoid them, and they 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, crab, and other species is another leading cause of North Atlantic right whale deaths. Around one-quarter of the population is entangled in fishing gear from the U.S. and Canada each year, and about 85% of whales have been entangled at least once. Ropes have been seen wrapped around their mouths, fins, tails, and bodies, which slow them down; make it difficult to swim, reproduce, and feed; and can cause death. 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 binational campaign to save North Atlantic right whales, click here.  

To track current vessel speeds in active speed zones, visit Oceana’s online tool called Ship Speed Watch.