Vessels off the US east coast must slow down more often to help save a vanishing species of whale from extinction, the federal government said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the announcement via new proposed rules designed to prevent ships colliding with North Atlantic right whales.
Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the two biggest threats to the giant animals, which number fewer than 340 and are falling in population.
Efforts to save the whales have long focused on fishing gear, especially that used by east coast lobster fishermen. The proposed vessel speed rules signal that the government wants the shipping industry to take more responsibility.
“Changes to the existing vessel speed regulation are essential to stabilize the ongoing right whale population decline and prevent the species’ extinction,” state the proposed rules, which are slated to be published in the federal register.
The new rules would expand seasonal slow zones off the east coast that require mariners to slow down to 10 knots (just over 11mph or 19km/h).
They would also require more vessels to comply with the rules by expanding the size classes that must slow down.
The rules also state that Noaa would create a framework to implement mandatory speed restrictions when whales are known to be present outside the seasonal slow zones.
Federal authorities spent a few years reviewing the speed regulations used to protect the whales. The shipping rules have long focused on a patchwork of slow zones that require mariners to slow down for whales. Some of the zones are mandatory, while others are voluntary.
Environmental groups have made the case that many boats do not comply with the speed restrictions and that the rules need to be tighter.
The environmental organization Oceana released a report in 2021 that said non-compliance was nearly 90% in mandatory zones and compliance was also dangerously low (nearly 85%) in the voluntary ones.
“It’s no secret that speeding vessels are rampant throughout North Atlantic right whales’ migration route, all along the east coast,” said Gib Brogan, a campaign director at Oceana.
Many members of the shipping industry were keenly aware the new speed rules were on the way.
Chris Waddington, the London-based International Chamber of Shipping’s technical director, said: “The shipping industry takes the protection of whales seriously and has undertaken measures to safeguard them, from engaging stakeholders to reducing speed and rerouting.”
The right whales were once numerous, but their populations plummeted due to commercial whaling generations ago.
Although they have been protected under the Endangered Species Act for decades, they have been slow to recover.
More than 50 of the whales were struck by ships between spring 1999 and spring 2018, Noaa records state.
Scientists have said in recent years that warming ocean temperatures driven by the climate crisis are causing the whales to stray out of protected areas and into shipping lanes in search of food.
The whales give birth off the coast of Georgia and Florida and head north to feed off Massachusetts, Maine and Canada.
Members of New England’s lobster fishing industry argue that too many rules designed to save the whales focus on fishing and not on vessel strikes.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 30 July 2022. Lead Image: North Atlantic right whales were once numerous but hunted almost to extinction by commercial whaling. Their numbers have been slow to recover. Photograph: Brian J Skerry/NG/Getty Images.
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