Here’s how you can help protect endangered right whales now.
Proposed changes to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries vessel speed rule have the potential to significantly reduce deadly vessel collisions with North Atlantic right whales, seeking to address one of the main threats to the survival of this critically endangered species.
Right whale protections have never been as important as they are now — as of 2021, fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales remain, making them one of the most endangered large whale species on Earth. With such a low population size, no more than one whale can be killed per year while still ensuring the survival of the species.
Yet vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements—the two leading threats to the species—regularly kill far more than one whale per year. In 2017, NOAA Fisheries declared a state of emergency due to the “unusual mortality” rate of right whales, after vessels and fishing gear killed 19 whales in one year. But it wasn’t just a one-time occurrence. Those numbers have continued: vessel strikes, and fishing gear entanglements killed eight whales in 2018, 11 whales in 2019, six whales in 2020, and seven whales in 2021. Those are only the known deaths; scientists guess that far more go undetected. As a result, the state of emergency remains in effect today.
Protect endangered right whales.
“There was a time when people intentionally hunted North Atlantic right whales, but we brought them back from the brink of extinction by stopping that practice. The same thing is happening now with accidental deaths of right whales due to vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements,” says Melissa Edmonds, a science and policy analyst at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s time to once again use science to save this species.”
When it comes to reducing vessel strikes, slower vessels mean safer waters for North Atlantic right whales. Studies have found that slowing vessel speeds to 10 knots reduces a right whale’s risk of death from vessel strikes by as much as 90 percent. At higher vessel speeds, it is harder for vessels to maneuver to avoid right whales in their path. And when vessels can’t change course to avoid a collision, higher speeds make it more likely that right whales will sustain deadly injuries from blunt-force trauma or cuts from propellers. Just like slowing down cars in a school zone, speed zones on the water help boaters and whales alike avoid the dangerous consequences of vessel collisions.
Safeguards like slower speeds are especially important in the Southeast, the only place on the planet where right whales are known to give birth and raise their calves. Because of the small population size, right whale mothers and calves are the most important members of the species for ensuring its continued survival and recovery. They’re also the most vulnerable as their habitat overlaps with many major shipping lanes, and they spend much of their time resting just below the surface of the water where they are in harm’s way, but nearly impossible to see. Sadly, in the last two years alone, vessels have struck and killed three calves and one nursing mother.
There was a time when people intentionally hunted North Atlantic right whales, but we brought them back from the brink of extinction by stopping that practice. The same thing is happening now with accidental deaths of right whales due to vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements.Melissa Edmonds, Science and Policy Analyst
NOAA first addressed the problem of vessel strikes in 2008, setting a speed limit of 10 knots for vessels over 65 feet in length traveling in key times and places that right whales and ships were expected to overlap. But even then, the agency admitted that the speed limits might need to be strengthened later if they didn’t do enough to address the threat.
That’s exactly what happened. While the current speed zones have been effective at reducing the death and injury caused by vessel strikes within their boundaries, the number of collisions outside of those areas has increased over time. This may be due in part to the impacts of climate change on right whale prey, pushing right whales into new areas outside the speed zones drawn in 2008.
Not only do the current regulations not provide sufficient geographic protections, but ship strikes in recent years have also shown the need to expand the type of vessels regulated. The three most recent vessel collisions with calves all involved vessels either confirmed or suspected to be shorter than 65 feet long. Notably, each of these incidents also involved harm to the boats themselves.
When it comes to protecting highly endangered species like the right whale, science is the key to determining solutions. And thankfully we have that here.Sierra Weaver, Leader of SELC’S Coast and Wetlands Program
NOAA’s proposed changes aim to address these apparent shifts in habitat, as well as to reduce collisions with vessels not regulated in the current rule. SELC will submit comments supporting the proposed rule before the Oct. 31st deadline. We hope that NOAA’s proposal will be just the beginning of the path to recovery for North Atlantic right whales.
“When it comes to protecting highly endangered species like the right whale, science is the key to determining solutions. And thankfully we have that here. The agency has spent years studying the problem and devising the solution, and we can’t wait any longer to get these important protections in place,” says Sierra Weaver, leader of SELC’s Coast and Wetlands Program. “It’s time to turn that into action and save this species.”
To submit your own comments in support of NOAA’s proposed changes, please click here.