Oceana Confirms Hundreds of Speeding Boats off Virginia Beach Prior to North Atlantic Right Whale Death - Oceana USA

Oceana Confirms Hundreds of Speeding Boats off Virginia Beach Prior to North Atlantic Right Whale Death

Oceana demands NOAA enforce speed limits along the Atlantic coast and issue stronger protections to prevent more whale deaths

Press Release Date: March 9, 2023

Location: Washington


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

A new analysis from Oceana today finds that hundreds of boats were speeding through both mandatory and voluntary slow zones designed to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Virginia Beach area in the weeks prior to a deadly boat strike. 

On February 12, 2023, a 20-year-old male North Atlantic right whale was found dead off Virginia Beach. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) classified the blunt-force traumatic injuries as the cause of death and consistent with those of a boat strike. 

Using Ship Speed Watch*, an innovative tool launched by Oceana to monitor ship speeds in slow zones established to protect North Atlantic right whales, Oceana documented that during the period of February 1 – 11, 2023: 

  • More than 200 boats larger than 65 feet long traveled through slow zones established by NOAA at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
  • Nearly 7 out of 10 boats (158 boats) traveled above the speed limit of 10 knots (11.5 MPH) through either mandatory or voluntary slow zones.
  • One boat traveled as fast as 23.2 knots (26.7 MPH) — more than double the speed limit — within a designated mandatory slow zone.
  • Around half of the boats (106 boats) were found speeding in the mandatory slow zones. 
  • In the days immediately preceding the discovery of the dead whale on February 12, more than 75% of the boats (77 boats) did not comply with the mandatory or voluntary speed limits between February 8 and 11. 

“Speeding boats and slow swimming whales are a recipe for disaster, but a preventable one. Current vessel speed limits are ineffective and made worse by the fact that they aren’t even properly enforced. NOAA knows this and has a pending new regulation that would update the slow zones established to protect the North Atlantic right whale. NOAA must immediately issue the final vessel speed measures before more whales needlessly die. These speed limits also need robust enforcement and accountability for those breaking the law. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and National Marine Fisheries Services Assistant Administrator Janet Coit are responsible for upholding the law and protecting endangered species – right now they are failing at both,” said Gib Brogan, campaign director at Oceana.

Vessel strikes are one of the biggest threats to the survival of the North Atlantic right whale. Last year, NOAA proposed new vessel speed regulations to address this ongoing threat to protect North Atlantic right whales. Nearly 20,000 Oceana members and supporters commented on the proposed rule that is currently under review. The final safeguards are not expected until later this year.

The timeline of events preceding the whale’s death off Virginia Beach provides further evidence that NOAA knew there were North Atlantic right whales swimming in danger and did nothing to protect them from boat strikes:

  • December 2022: Oceana filed an emergency rulemaking petition with the Department of Commerce and NOAA for the current calving season, demanding immediate protective measures for North Atlantic right whale mothers and newborn calves from boat collisions until the final rule is in place.
  • January 23, 2023: NOAA rejected the petition and refused to take necessary action to protect North Atlantic right whales from boat strikes and continued to use voluntary speed zones that the agency itself knows are ineffective. 
  • January 25, 2023: NOAA implemented the voluntary slow zone “East of Virginia Beach, VA DMA Slow Zone,” acknowledging that a North Atlantic right whale was sighted or detected in that area. Whalemap.org data showed the detection of at least seven North Atlantic right whales in the Chesapeake Bay, off the coast of Virginia.
  • February 10, 2023: NOAA extended the voluntary slow zone at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay because of the ongoing presence of North Atlantic right whales.
  • February 12, 2023: A dead North Atlantic right whale washed up in Virginia Beach.
  • February 17, 2023: NOAA confirmed that the whale suffered “blunt force traumatic injury consistent with a vessel strike” but did not identify when or where the whale was hit or by what type of boat.

“I wish we could say that the death of this North Atlantic right whale was a rarity and a fluke, but we predicted this would happen and it did – on NOAA’s watch,” Brogan continued. “Oceana sounded the alarm for months, calling on NOAA to protect these critically endangered whales from boat strikes as they traversed the East Coast during calving season. It is beyond frustrating and sad that any North Atlantic right whale had to die because of government inaction. Meanwhile, we continue to wait for our government to finalize its own proposal at a pace that feels like watching paint dry.”

There are only around 340 of these critically endangered whales left in the world, including around 80 breeding females. 

Multiple studies show that slowing boats to 10 knots reduces a North Atlantic right whale’s risk of death by boat collision by 80% to 90%.

About Ship Speed Watch: 
Oceana’s Ship Speed Watch allows users to monitor ship speeds and positions in areas frequented by North Atlantic right whales along the East Coast of Canada and the U.S. in near real-time. The tool uses self-reported data to show ship locations, ship speeds and active voluntary and mandatory speed restriction zones. The tool also provides additional information about speed restrictions in place to protect this endangered species. When mandatory and enforced, speed restriction zones can help prevent deadly collisions with ships, one of two leading causes of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. Ship Speed Watch was created based on Automatic Identification System (AIS) data from Global Fishing Watch, an independent non-profit founded by Oceana in partnership with Google and SkyTruth, which uses cutting-edge technology to interpret data from various ship tracking resources. 

*Ship Speed Watch uses vessel information in the Global Fishing Watch database. This information is transmitted from a vessel’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) device, which is collected via satellites and terrestrial receivers. Faulty AIS devices, user error, intentional manipulation, crowded areas, poor satellite reception, and transmission flaws are factors that contribute to noise and errors in AIS data, and sometimes those inaccuracies can be reflected in the speed and location of a vessel. Vessel operators can accidentally or purposefully enter false information into their ship’s AIS thus concealing their identity or location. In crowded areas, such as ports, the massive number of radio transmissions can crowd the bandwidth of satellite and terrestrial receivers, leading to inaccuracies as well. Our analysis cannot determine which vessels fall under exemptions to the Vessel Speed Rule due to inclement wind and current conditions, so some speeding vessels counted in this analysis may have legal exemptions. For these reasons, Ship Speed Watch information must be relied upon solely at your own risk. 


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 boats 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 campaign to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction, please click here.