Washington, DC — A U.S. Navy ship struck an endangered Atlantic right whale in mid-November and the carcass of a pregnant female has been found on the North Carolina coast, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This is the second pregnant right whale to be killed by ships in this immediate vicinity this year.
On November 17th, a Navy Amphibious Assault Ship reported a whale strike about 10 miles outside the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. The whale appeared to have a fresh wound to the fluke with a large portion missing and was seen moving slowly in a southeasterly direction. On November 24th, a 35-foot right whale came ashore along the Northern Outer Banks in Ocean Sands, North Carolina. The whale was a pregnant female with part of its fluke missing.
While the Navy admits that its ship hit a whale it has not publicly admitted it was the same female right whale found at Ocean Sands. The Navy did not report the strike to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries until the 22nd, five days after it occurred.
"This accident is a direct outgrowth of the Navy's official indifference," stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former federal biologist, noting that the Navy refuses to even consult with NOAA on the impact of naval operations on right whale recovery. "The loss of a pregnant female is devastating to a population teetering on the brink of extinction."
There are only 300 North Atlantic right whales left in existence. Ship strikes are the largest known cause of death for this highly endangered creature. Calves, who have undeveloped diving capability, are particularly vulnerable. By far, the single biggest known source of whale strikes is the U.S. Navy. Navy vessel traffic dwarfs commercial ship traffic in right whale habitat and naval vessels tend to travel at higher speeds – a factor exacerbating both the likelihood of a strike and the physical harm done to the whale.
This spring, NOAA announced it would consider adopting ship speed limits, rerouting and channel restrictions to avoid or minimize ship traffic in sensitive calving, mating and migratory areas. But last month, in its published "Draft Revised Recovery Plan for the North Atlantic Right Whale," NOAA proposed unenforceable measures to reduce collisions with shipping and entanglement in fishing gear.
"Both NOAA and the Navy seem content to fiddle while Rome burns," added Bennett. "The U.S. Senate should pin the next Secretary of Commerce down as to whether he plans to preside over the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale."
In 2002, PEER revealed the Navy was conducting aerial bombing exercises off the coast of Maine directly in the migratory path of right whales. Shortly thereafter, the decapitated carcass of a calf was found but was too decomposed to establish cause. As with this latest incident, the Navy refused to admit fault.