Washington, DC — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) today announced a plan for ship speed limits in order to protect the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. Speed limits are a key element in a long-delayed right whale recovery strategy, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which has been campaigning for adoption of these measures.
Ship strikes are the leading cause of death for the right whale, considered one of the planet’s most endangered species with less than 300 animals left in existence. In the past year, five percent of the total female breeding population has been killed, as well as two near term calves.
NOAA is proposing speed limits of 10 knots (or 11.5 miles per hour) for shipping along the eastern seaboard during the migration of right whales between Florida and New England. This action by NOAA dovetails with a May 24, 2006 proposal by the U.S. Coast Guard to change shipping routes from Florida to Boston to minimize collisions during right whale migrations.
“For whales, speed kills when it comes to collisions with ships,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former federal biologist, who has waged a two-year long effort for speed limits and other ship strike reduction measures.
In January 2005, the Marine Mammal Commission wrote to William Hogarth, head of NOAA Fisheries, asking that his agency implement “emergency rules…aimed at reducing ship strikes,” adding that “further delays in taking action will result in additional right whale deaths and increase the likelihood that the population will never recover.” NOAA did not act on that warning for another 18 months.
A large cohort of calves born last summer is the slow-moving whale’s only chance for survival. Right whale calves are particularly vulnerable to ship strikes due to their undeveloped diving capability.
“This welcome step is long overdue,” added Bennett, noting that NOAA overcame strong opposition to speed limits from both the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. “NOAA deserves congratulations for doing the right thing in the face of stiff resistance. This action will, hopefully, be in time to save the remaining population.”
The proposed speed limits will be open to public comments until August 23rd.