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Speed Limits for Ships Failing to Protect Endangered Whales: Report

right whale propeller killed
(Submitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute)
A right whale calf washed up on a Florida beach on Feb. 14 off Florida with injuries matching those typically sustained by a strike from a vessel, including propeller wounds.

Mandatory speed limits for ships up and down the East Coast are failing to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from collisions with vessels, according to new research.

After analyzing the speeds of 8,714 ships and boats over 65 feet along the Atlantic Coast from 2017 to 2020, Oceana, a marine conservation group, is warning that federal officials need to update vessel speed requirements and expand enforcement.

“We found that across the board from Florida to Maine, the current U.S. federal vessel speed regulations are not effective to protect right whales from collisions with boats,” said Gib Brogan, a senior campaign manager with Oceana. “There is a set of regulations that went into place in 2008. And those are not providing adequate protection for North Atlantic right whales.”

The research found that among 10 ports from Maine to Florida with mandatory 10-knot speed limits, ships and boats larger than 65 feet off Race Point had the highest level of compliance, with 67 percent of boats slowing down between Nov. 2019 and July 2020. However, in Cape Cod Bay, the compliance level during that time period was only around 55 percent.

The report also highlighted the top recorded vessel speeds in mandatory 10-knot speed zones; one vessel traveled at 37 knots in Cape Cod Bay last year— nearly four times over the limit.

In the Gulf of Maine, 35 percent of vessels studied adhered to a voluntary 10-knot speed limit last year, compared to just 23 percent in southern New England waters.

The lowest levels of compliance for mandatory speed zones were in the south and mid-Atlantic ports between Wilmington, North Carolina, and Brunswick, Georgia, where during certain periods captains of large boats did not comply almost 90 percent of the time.

“With 90 percent of the vessels failing to comply, that is undermining the conservation value of these regulations,” Brogan said.

Collisions with vessels are one of two leading causes of injury and death for North Atlantic right whales — a species with a population that’s fallen to around 360. The 70-ton marine mammals are particularly prone to vessel strike because they tend to swim slowly and near the water’s surface; their dark blubber and lack of dorsal fin can make them difficult to spot for boats traveling at high speeds.

Studies have found that slowing vessel speeds to 10 knots reduces North Atlantic right whales' risk of death from vessel strikes by 80 to 90 percent, according to Oceana.

Because of the sheer volume of traffic in Southern New England, the region poses, “the greatest threat despite having a lower percentage of non-cooperation than others,” according to the report. Over 2,600 vessel transits exceeded the voluntary speed restrictions in the region over the four-year period.

The group is now calling on federal regulators with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to expand speed reductions, improve enforcement, turn voluntary speed zones into mandatory ones, and set higher penalties for violators.

“There’s only a handful of enforcement cases that move forward every year, and when they do the fines are nominal. This is not putting any teeth behind the regulations,” Brogan added. “The fines can’t just be the cost of doing business. They need to be a deterrent.”

The same reduced speed zones have been in place since 2008, Brogan said, leaving little excuse for ship captains.

“In some places there are speed zones that are extraordinarily ineffective,” he said. “The levels of compliance are extraordinarily low, and these boats are flaunting the regulations on a daily basis.”

The report found that cargo vessels were the least compliant vessel type in both mandatory and voluntary speed zones, representing about 42 percent of non-cooperation in voluntary speed zones and around 50 percent of non-compliance in mandatory speed zones.

The group also wants new speed zones, including in an area south of Martha’s Vineyard where right whales seem to be spending more time year-round, and it wants NOAA to include smaller vessels in its restrictions.

While this analysis focused on vessels 65 feet or larger, a right whale calf died earlier this year from propeller wounds, broken ribs, and a fractured skull after colliding with a 54-foot fishing charter that was too small to be required to adhere to speed limits.

“That vessel was exempt. It was too small to be affected by the regulations,” Brogan said, “But it points out the need to protect right whales from a larger group of boats, that smaller boats can be just as dangerous to right whales as large ships.”