Oceana Finds Most Vessels Exceeding Speed Limits in Areas Designed to Protect Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales Along U.S. Atlantic Coast - Oceana USA

Oceana Finds Most Vessels Exceeding Speed Limits in Areas Designed to Protect Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales Along U.S. Atlantic Coast

Press Release Date: July 21, 2021

Location: Washington


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

Today, Oceana released a new report finding that most vessels are exceeding speed limits in areas designed to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, of which only around 360 remain. Oceana analyzed vessel speeds from 2017 to 2020 in speed zones established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) along the U.S. Atlantic coast, and found non-compliance was as high as almost 90% in mandatory speed zones, and non-cooperation was as high as almost 85% in voluntary areas.  

Collisions with vessels are one of two leading causes of injury and death for North Atlantic right whales. Studies have found that slowing vessel speeds to 10 knots reduces a North Atlantic right whale’s risk of death from vessel strikes by between 80% to 90%. While this analysis focused on vessels 65 feet or larger that are required to use public tracking devices, vessels of all sizes can cause fatal injuries to North Atlantic right whales. In fact, a calf died earlier this year from propeller wounds, broken ribs, and a fractured skull from a collision with a 54-foot recreational fishing vessel.  

“Vessels are speeding, North Atlantic right whales are dying, and there’s not enough accountability,” said Whitney Webber, campaign director at Oceana. “Oceana’s analysis shows that speeding vessels are rampant throughout North Atlantic right whales’ migration route, all along the East Coast, and in both mandatory and voluntary speed zones. North Atlantic right whales are dying from vessel strikes and NOAA must take action to prevent this. Killing even one is a problem, as scientists estimate that even a single human-caused North Atlantic right whale death a year threatens the species’ chances of recovery. If NOAA is serious about its mandate to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction, speed zones must be designated in the areas where whales currently are, and they must be enforced. Until speed zone rules are mandatory and violators held accountable, North Atlantic right whales will continue to die on NOAA’s watch.” 

NOAA uses two different types of management tools to help protect North Atlantic right whales from vessel strikes: permanently designated mandatory Seasonal Management Area (SMA) speed zones in places where whales are expected to be, and reactive voluntary Dynamic Management Area (DMA) speed zones when a whale is spotted. DMAs suggest that vessels avoid the area and have a voluntary speed limit of 10 knots. In contrast, SMAs require vessels to slow down to 10 knots.  

Oceana’s analysis of vessel compliance with speed restrictions in both SMAs and DMAs between 2017 and 2020 used data from Global Fishing Watch,* an international nonprofit organization founded by Oceana in partnership with Google and SkyTruth. Oceana analyzed self-reported vessel speeds and location data to track vessel speeds and positions in North Atlantic right whale conservation areas. DMAs were broken up into four regions: Gulf of Maine, Southern New England, Mid-Atlantic, and the Southern States.  

Oceana found that: 

  • At best, the highest level of compliance with mandatory 10-knot speed limits was only around two-thirds of vessels in the Off Race Point SMA, near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. At worst, almost 90% of vessels violated the mandatory 10-knot speed limit in the Wilmington, North Carolina, to Brunswick, Georgia, SMA.  
  • The SMAs with the worst compliance were:  
    • Wilmington, North Carolina to Brunswick, Georgia (almost 90% non-compliance);  
    • Ports of New York/New Jersey (almost 80% non-compliance);  
    • Calving and nursery grounds from Georgia to Florida (over 70% non-compliance);  
    • The entrance to the Chesapeake Bay (almost 65% non-compliance); and  
    • The entrance to the Delaware Bay (over 55% non-compliance).  
  • Two-thirds of the vessels that exceeded 10-knot speed limits in both DMAs and SMAs operated under foreign flags.  
  • The worst offenders were flagged to the United States, Panama, Marshall Islands, Liberia, Germany, and Singapore. 
  • Cargo vessels were the least compliant vessel type in both DMAs and SMAs, representing about 42% of offenders in DMAs and around 50% of offenders in SMAs.  

As a result of these findings, Oceana is urgently calling on NOAA to immediately revise vessel speed regulations for the U.S. Atlantic to: 

  • expand and establish new SMAs; 
  • make compliance with DMAs mandatory;  
  • expand speed requirements to include vessels under 65 feet in length;  
  • require vessels to continuously broadcast public tracking signals, including those under 65 feet in length; 
  • improve compliance and enforcement of mandatory speed limits; and  
  • narrow the exemption for federal agencies.  


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 are one of two leading causes of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. North Atlantic right whales are slow, swimming around six 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 vessel-related collisions with North Atlantic right whales. At high speeds, 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 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 SMAs and DMAs, visit Ship Speed Watch


*Global Fishing Watch (GFW), a provider of open data for use in this report, is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing ocean governance through increased transparency of human activity at sea. The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors, which are not connected with or sponsored, endorsed, or granted official status by GFW. By creating and publicly sharing map visualizations, data, and analysis tools, GFW aims to enable scientific research and transform the way our ocean is managed.