NOAA proposes speed limits to protect North Atlantic right whales

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has proposed speed limits and shipping route restrictions to reduce the threat of collisions with North Atlantic right whales.

Only about 300 North Atlantic right whales remain. Because they are slow and spend most of their time at the surface, they are vulnerable to ship strikes. (Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The North Atlantic right whale is an endangered species. Only about 300 of the whales remain. Because they are slow, difficult to see and buoyant, they are especially vulnerable to ship collisions, considered the greatest risk they face.

To minimize collisions, the proposed regulation establishes three management sub-areas — Northeast, Middle Atlantic and Southeast — the primary habitat of the right whale. Within the feeding grounds in the Northeast and the calving grounds in the Southeast, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposes a speed restriction of 10 knots or less for vessels over 65 feet. In the Middle Atlantic area where the whales migrate, the 10-knot restrictions would extend offshore to 20 nautical miles and include major ports. The restrictions apply when whales would normally be expected to be present.

NMFS is also proposing that so-called dynamic management areas be established for all areas of the Atlantic. These dynamic management areas would be temporary and would be established in direct response to actual whale sightings. In these designated areas, mariners would have the option of transiting them at 10 knots or of taking a route around them. The size of a dynamic management area is to be determined by the number of whales sighted. Once an area has been designated, the rules would stay in effect for 15 days. The duration could be extended if whales remain in the area.

NOAA is also proposing a number of non-regulatory actions as part of the ship-strike-reduction strategy. Among these are the need to expand mariner education about right whales, initiate a bilateral conservation agreement with Canada to ensure consistent protection for right whales throughout their range and to continue ongoing conservation activities such as the 500-yard no-approach zone, sighting surveys and mandatory ship reporting systems.

Also on the table is a proposal to establish recommended shipping routes that would keep traffic away from known whale migration routes and the establishment of International Maritime Organization endorsed areas to be avoided by all ships 300 gross tons and greater.

Athough the formal deadline for public comment was Sept. 29, NOAA has said it will continue to consider comments received after that date.

—John Snyder

By Professional Mariner Staff