NOAA seeks permanent rule for ship speed limit in whale zones


A temporary U.S. rule to reduce the number of North Atlantic right whales struck by ships could soon become permanent. Yet some in the commercial shipping industry caution that the rule — which requires commercial vessels to slow down to 10 knots in right whale zones — is too inflexible.

North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered mammals in the world, with just 450 of the species left in the population. The whales are migratory and travel between Florida and Canada. Females take a decade to reach sexual maturity and then only have one calf per year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries Service implemented the temporary regulation five years ago. The rule is like a school zone, said Moira Brown, a marine mammalogist with the New England Aquarium in Boston and the Canadian Whale Institute in Wilson’s Beach, New Brunswick.

“If there is a kid who ends up in the road and they detect the car, they have more time to get out of the way of a car going 20 or 30 miles per hour than they do one going 60 miles per hour,” Brown said.

Courtesy NOAA

NOAA seeks regulations along the U.S. East Coast that would protect right whales from similar ship-strike accidents.

But there’s a caveat: The timing of the slowdown depends on the whales’ estimated location along the corridor. For instance, the rule would not be in effect in Florida and Massachusetts at the same time.

No right whales have been struck in the migratory corridor since the rule went into effect — down from about zero to two strikes per year, said Gregory Silber, NOAA’s coordinator of recovery activities for endangered whales. NOAA estimates that the probability of a fatal right-whale ship strike has dropped by 80 to 90 percent.  

Mandatory slowdowns have cost the shipping industry about 6 cents for every $1,000 of goods, Silber acknowledged. That’s due to numerous factors, from missed transit connections to the added time it takes to get goods to port. NOAA says the cost is justified. “If you look at it across an entire industry and multiple types of industry,” Silber said, “those impacts are very, very small.”

Not everyone agrees the rule should go into effect as is, though. Of particular concern is the timing of slowdowns. “All right whales have departed the Savannah area by St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, for the past several years but the speed restrictions continue until April 30,” wrote Thomas Wright, a member of the Savannah Maritime Association in Georgia, on NOAA’s public docket for comments on the proposal. The comment period closed Aug. 6.

There’s a difference between seasonal management areas and dynamic management areas, explained Kathy Metcalf, director of maritime affairs at the Chamber of Shipping of America in Washington, D.C. While the seasonal areas in this rule reflect historic whale sightings, dynamic areas depend on actual, recent sightings. Dynamic areas would be the norm, Metcalf said, were it not for the exorbitant cost of continuous monitoring. Metcalf’s agency, which is drafting its final comments, will likely propose a compromise — seasonal management in the north and south and dynamic management in the mid-Atlantic region, where there are no historic reports of strikes.

At least one vessel operator wrote in support of extending the current rules. Deb Ridings, captain of a whale-watching boat in Massachusetts, submitted comments to NOAA emphasizing the ongoing need to accommodate the whales’ recovery.  

“The restrictions created for North Atlantic right whale seasonal and dynamic management areas contribute to a safer habitat for these marine mammals. The population is still subpar although showing signs of growth. Continuing protective measures is prudent for this species,” Ridings wrote on the docket.

Ideally, the U.S. would simply reroute ships, Brown added. In Canada, for instance, shipping routes in the Bay of Fundy and the Roseway Basin south of Nova Scotia allow ships to run parallel to right whales. But in the U.S., she said, “if you look at the angle of the mid-Atlantic and Boston and Florida, the vessels are crossing that migratory corridor perpendicular to the path of the whales.”

By Professional Mariner Staff