Oceana Finds Nearly 80% of Ships Violated Speed Limit During Period North Atlantic right whale Calf was Maimed by Boat Strike  - Oceana USA

Oceana Finds Nearly 80% of Ships Violated Speed Limit During Period North Atlantic right whale Calf was Maimed by Boat Strike 

President Biden and Secretary Raimondo need to update the vessel speed rule now to protect critically endangered whales

Press Release Date: January 12, 2024

Location: Washington, D.C.


Megan Jordan, Tami von Isakovics | Blue Wagon Group | email: mjordan@oceana.org, tami@bluewagongroup.com | tel: 202.868.4061, 415-225-7284

An Oceana analysis uncovered that 79% of ships violated mandatory speed zones in the weeks leading up to the discovery of a maimed North Atlantic right whale calf off South Carolina. On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed that the calf was spotted on January 6, 2024, with life-threatening injuries consistent with a boat strike. Oceana’s analysis shows that in the weeks prior to the boat strike, the majority of boats in the area were speeding through mandatory slow zones designed to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.  

Oceana says President Biden and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo failed to do their jobs to protect North Atlantic right whales, and demands they immediately issue the updated vessel speed rule and fully enforce speed limits.  

Using Ship Speed Watch*, an innovative tool launched by Oceana to monitor ship speeds in slow zones in the U.S. that were established to protect North Atlantic right whales, Oceana documented that during the period between December 9, 2023, (the last confirmed sighting of the healthy, uninjured mom and calf pair) and January 3, 2024:  

  • 79% of boats 65 feet and greater (454 of 575) exceeded the speed limit in the mandatory slow zones in the U.S. southeast. 
  • One boat was found traveling as fast as 35.8 knots, more than 3.5 times the speed limit.  

“Speeding boats and whales are a deadly mix — it’s no different than allowing an 18-wheeler to plow through a school zone,” said Oceana Campaign Director Gib Brogan. “We are outraged that yet again, a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale calf is on the brink of death due to a preventable boat strike. Just weeks ago, we were celebrating this calf’s birth, and now we’re anticipating its untimely death. Further delays in issuing the vessel speed rule will predictably invite more devastating events like this one and that is simply unacceptable. With calving rates already so low, each calf is vital to the survival of this species. President Biden and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo have delayed increased protections for right whales and are failing to enforce the existing slow zones — we call on them to immediately enforce speed limits and implement the proposed vessel speed rule. North Atlantic right whales weave through thousands of boats that travel in and out of ports up and down the eastern seaboard – directly in their migratory zone. Every day this rule is delayed pushes these whales closer to the brink of extinction. We need urgent action now from the Biden administration to protect North Atlantic right whales, not hopes and dreams about future solutions.” 

In 2022, NOAA proposed new vessel speed regulations to address the ongoing threat of boat strikes affecting North Atlantic right whales. Final changes to the existing rules have still not been released.  

There are only around 356 of these critically endangered whales left in the world, including only around 70 breeding females. Multiple studies show that slowing large boats to 10 knots reduces a North Atlantic right whale’s risk of death by boat collision by 80% to 90%. 

In the U.S. southeast, mandatory slow zones are in place from November through April to protect North Atlantic right whale mothers as they travel to the warmer waters to calve. These slow zones require boats 65 feet and greater to travel at speeds of 10 knots or less. Unfortunately, they are frequently ignored, putting mothers and their new calves at risk.   

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.  

To track current boat speeds in active SMAs and DMAs/Slow Zones, visit Ship Speed Watch.  


North Atlantic right whales were a frequent target of whalers as 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 kilometres) 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.     

Entanglements 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% 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