Speed limits proposed off East Coast to protect endangered whales

The National Marine Fisheries Service is soliciting opinions on a proposal to implement speed restrictions in order to reduce the risk of collisions with endangered North Atlantic right whales. The restrictions would require vessels of 65 feet or longer to travel at 10 knots or less at certain times of the year in certain areas along the East Coast in conjunction with the right whales’ seasonal migration pattern.

North Atlantic right whales are known to be sluggish swimmers and are often found in and near East Coast shipping lanes. They are among the world’s most endangered whales; only about 350 remain. NMFS scientists confirmed that there have been 292 ship strikes on large whales from 1975 to 2002, and that 38 of these involved death or injury to North Atlantic right whales. From 1991 to 2002, 14 strikes resulted in right whale deaths.
Longtime right whale advocate Scott Kraus, vice president of research at the New England Aquarium, said he supports the proposal.

“A large part of this species’ failure to thrive is related to the overlap between their habitat and major U.S. shipping lanes,” he said. “Speed restrictions on large ships in these areas are the only thing that can reduce ship strikes of Northern Atlantic right whales, so it’s very important that these proposals make it through the rule-making process and become a reality.”
According to the notice published in the Federal Register in late June, citing research conducted by Kraus, speed is a principal factor in ship-strike cases. Most deaths occurred when a vessel was traveling faster than 13 knots; the average speed in right whale ship-strike deaths was determined to be 18.6 knots. Ship strikes at 9 knots or less led to an 80-percent probability of survival.

The NMFS conceded that the rule change is not without cost. It estimates the cumulative economic impact would be about $116 million in terms of shipping delays and possible port diversions.

Andy McGovern, a pilot with the Sandy Hook Pilots of New York and New Jersey, said the speed restriction could compel some ships to avoid ports that are too embedded within the speed zones, such as Boston. Instead, the ships could opt to drop their containers in New York, and then ship them by truck, which leads to an increase in shipping costs, air pollution and more traffic on roadways.

“We’re not sure yet about the viability of ports like Boston. Would ships still go there?” he asked. “This could kill ports like Boston.”

Aside from the fact that a ship is more maneuverable at 20 knots than at 10 knots, he said that it is unrealistic to assume that ship operators would simply accept the delays that the speed limits would cause.

“A ship running from New York to Norfolk generally stays within 30 miles of the coastline because they don’t want to buck the current in the Gulf Stream,” McGovern said. “But if a ship has to travel at 10 knots inshore, then they are going to go offshore and burn more fuel fighting the current. Burning more fuel increases costs, air pollution and it just goes on from there.”

No one wants to hit a right whale, but the shipping industry has yet to see any conclusive studies that prove a speed restriction would reduce right whale mortality, McGovern said. This makes the obvious economic costs involved in the rule change harder to accept, he argued, since there is no assurance of sufficient benefits to the right whale population to justify the economic harm done to the industry.

“Show us the science,” he said. “Otherwise, this is pure conjecture.”

The proposed restrictions would be in effect off the southeastern United States from Nov. 15 through April 15. From Nov. 1 through April 30, the regulations would affect the ocean waters to within 30 miles of the ports of New York/New Jersey, the entrance to Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay, Morehead City/Beaufort, N.C., Wilmington, N.C., Georgetown, S.C., Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and waters of Block Island Sound.

Off New England, speed restrictions would be in place from Jan. 1 to May 15 in Cape Cod Bay; March 1 through April 30 off Provincetown’s Race Point; and from April 1 to July 31 in the Great South Channel.

In addition, all ocean waters off the East Coast would be regarded as a dynamic management area (DMA) in which the NMFS could impose 15-nautical-mile circles where the speed limit would apply where concentrations of right whales have been observed.
Public hearings were scheduled in August in Jacksonville, Baltimore and Boston.

Kate Yeomans
By Professional Mariner Staff