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Right whale death prompts renewed calls for boat speed limits

A North Atlantic right whale washed up on a Virginia Beach on Sunday. Officials concluded it had likely been hit by a boat.
Center for Biological Diversity
A North Atlantic right whale washed up on a Virginia Beach on Sunday. Officials concluded it had likely been hit by a boat.

A critically endangered right whale found dead off the coast of Virginia likely died after being hit by a boat, officials say. Its death has become a call to action for environmental groups, who say “blood is on the hands” of federal regulators.

After a post mortem examination, officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that the 20-year old male discovered on a beach on Sunday suffered catastrophic blunt force trauma and showed multiple vertebral fractures. The whale, that was otherwise in normal to thin condition with no evidence of recent entanglement, likely died quickly, officials concluded.

This comes just weeks after the National Marine Fisheries Service rejected an emergency petition to expand the areas where boat speed limits apply, and force all all boats longer than 35 feet to slow down. Currently, only boats 65 feet long have to comply with speed rules.

Several conservation groups asked the government to implement those urgent measures that the feds, themselves, came up with, because, multiple studies show that slowing boats to 10 knots reduces a North Atlantic right whale’s risk of death by boat collision by 80% to 90%.

“We know that slowing down vessels reduces the risk of vessel strikes and it's just really difficult to continue to watch these animals die from impacts that are preventable.” 

The government opted to wait on new speed limits because officials said the proposed rules recently went through a public comment period and they were focused on putting resources toward releasing a final decision in mid-2023. The proposed speed rules have proven controversial among ferry operators, charter companies, fishermen and even some local towns. They've have taken issue with how far the measures go, and said they won’t even protect the whales where they need it.

But to people like Regina Asmutis-Silvia executive director and senior biologist for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the decision to hold off made the fate of this 20-year-old whale inevitable.

“The only analogy I can come up with is that if you're starving and I keep promising to get you food, but I never get you food, you starve,” she said. “That's the real tragedy; that there is a plan, there is a way to fix this. And the wheels of bureaucracy are actually turning so slowly that whales are dying as a result of it."

It’s the fourth large whale to be found dead in Virginia since the start of the year. The other have been humpbacks. So-called “vessel” strikes are one of the two leading causes of death for these critically endangered animals; the other is entanglement in rope and fishing gear.

Today, experts estimate that there are roughly 340 North Atlantic right whales left in the world.

“NOAA knows what they need to do to prevent deaths like this and has both the authority and responsibility to create and enforce mandatory speed zones,” said Oceana fisheries campaign manager Gib Brogan in a statement. “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.”

To be sure, the whale was found near the entrance to a port that has a 10-knot speed restriction in place, although it is unclear where or when he was hit. The current speed rule extends only 20 miles from the port entrance, and military vessels and vessels under 65 feet in length are exempt from the restriction.

Federal officials say that all boats 65 ft or longer must still travel at 10 knots or less off all major ports in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast until May 1, and they hope some voluntary speed limits could protect the whales, too.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.