PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Ships off the east coast must slow down more often to save a disappearing whale species from extinction, the federal government said Friday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the announcement through new proposed rules designed to prevent ships from colliding with North Atlantic right whales. Ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear are the two biggest threats to the giant animals, numbering less than 340 and declining in numbers.
Efforts to save the whales have long focused on fishing gearespecially those used by lobster fishermen on the east coast. The proposed speed rules for ships indicate that the government wants shipping to take more responsibility.
“Changes to existing ship speed control are essential to stabilize the ongoing decline of the right whale population and prevent the extinction of the species,” the proposed rules, which are expected to be published in the federal registry, state.
The new rules would expand seasonal slow zones off the east coast, requiring sailors to slow down to 10 knots (19 kilometers per hour). They would also need more ships to comply with the rules by expanding the size classes that have to slow down. The rules also state that NOAA would create a framework to introduce mandatory speed limits when whales are known to be present outside of the seasonal slow zones.
Federal authorities revised speed rules for a few years used to protect the whales. Shipping rules have long focused on a patchwork of slow zones that require sailors to slow down for whales. Some zones are mandatory, others are voluntary.
Environmental groups have argued that many boats are breaking the speed limits and that the rules need to be tightened. Environmental organization Oceana released a report in 2021 stating that non-compliance was nearly 90% in voluntary zones and was also dangerously low in the mandatory zones.
“The government is proposing a significant improvement in the protection of North Atlantic right whales, which are in constant danger from overspeeding ships,” said Gib Brogan, Oceana campaign manager. “It’s no secret that high-speed ships are rampant on the North Atlantic whale’s migration route, all along the eastern coast.”
Many members of the shipping industry were well aware that the new speeding rules were on the way. The London-based International Chamber of Shipping, which represents more than 80% of the global merchant fleet, is working with the International Maritime Organization and other stakeholders to better protect the right whales, said Chris Waddington, the chamber’s technical director.
Members of the chamber are used to obeying speed limits in whale areas, he said.
“The shipping industry takes the protection of whales seriously and has taken steps to protect them, from engaging stakeholders to reducing speed and rerouting,” Waddington said. “There is always more that can be done, which is why we are working with the IMO and conservationists to review maritime guidelines.”
The whales were once abundant off the east coast, but their populations plummeted due to commercial whaling generations ago. Although protected under the Endangered Species Act for decades, they are slow to recover.
More than 50 of the whales were hit by ships between the spring of 1999 and the spring of 2018, according to NOAA records. Scientists have said in recent years that ocean warming is causing whales to wander out of protected areas and into shipping lanes in search of food.
Environmentalists have said this is a good reason to tighten protections. The proposed shipping rules will be subject to a public comment process before they can become law.
“This proposal is a step in the right direction, but it won’t help any right whale until it’s actually completed,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.
The whales give birth off the coasts of Georgia and Florida and migrate north to feed off New England and Canada. They are popular with whale watching tours that depart in the summer from places such as Provincetown, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine.
Members of the New England lobster fishery have argued that too many regulations designed to save the whales focus on fishing, not attacking ships. Some labeled the new speed rules for ships as overdue.
Fishermen are unfairly held responsible for whale deaths caused by ship strikes, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the largest association of fishing companies on the East Coast.
“This puts tremendous pressure on the lobster industry to continue to change our fisheries to account for the deaths of whales unrelated to the lobster fishery,” McCarron said.