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Federal Officials Call Efforts to Protect Right Whales from Deadly Vessel Strikes Inadequate

Federal officials have released a report criticizing their own efforts to reduce the number of deaths among critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from collisions with boats and ships. In response, federal authorities are moving towards tougher rules on vessels to protect the whales. 

The report, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), found that a significant number of vessels are ignoring voluntary and, in some cases, mandatory speed limits that have been in place since 2008. 

Ship strikes are the second leading cause of death, after entanglement in rope and fishing gear, for North Atlantic right whales, whose population has plummeted to less than 360. 

NOAA established mandatory slowdown areas where right whales regularly appear, and temporary slowdown rules in areas— particularly those south of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard— when new aggregations of whales are spotted.

But, in assessing the rates of compliance with these different management areas and what effect that has on right whales, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of NOAA, acknowledged that overall, these regulations have not been effective in adequately reducing risk.

Gib Brogan, senior campaign manager with the environmental group Oceana, said the government’s admission proves that more strenuous protections are needed.


“For the mandatory areas, the compliance rate is just over 80 percent, meaning that there are hundreds of ships every year going through these zones at unsafe speeds,” Brogan said. “And the cooperation rate in the voluntary areas is even lower: around one half of the vessels that are going through these voluntary areas are not slowing down. ... That's alarming.” 


In the decade before the regulations, 12 whales died from vessel strikes; in the decade since, eight whales died from vessel strikes. 

“This overall decline demonstrates progress but also indicates additional action is warranted to further reduce the threat of vessel collisions,” the report said.

To conservationists, NOAA’s admission is a cause for hope.  

“[This report] has been in development by NOAA for a number of years. And we know that a draft has been sitting at the White House since July,” Brogan said. “To see this be released in the very early days of a new administration with such a candid assessment of how the regulations are working … is a breath of fresh air.” 

The report also arrives the same week as the thirteenth North Atlantic right whale calf of the season, which is major news considering that only 22 calves were born between 2017-2020.

Now, NOAA is recommending increased enforcement of speed limits, expansion of mandatory no-speed zones, and a rethinking of areas that have only voluntary speed restrictions. Oceana is also hoping the agency includes vessels smaller than 65 feet in mandatory speed restrictions. Currently, only those over 65 feet are required to slow down.

Existing regulations are estimated to cost mariners between $28.3 to $39.4 million annually, with the majority of the cost borne by the container ship sector, the report said.  

“Going forward, we’re looking at the federal government — now that they have in their own words concluded that the current regulations aren’t effective — to take action,” Brogan said.  “We need to reduce the risk of vessel strikes if we’re going to recover North Atlantic right whales, and we need to do it soon because as a critically endangered species they don’t have time for government inaction.”

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