Right whales, © Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA, NOAA permit #15488

NMFS Stands Firm on Ship Speed Limits to Protect Right Whales

With fewer than 500 whales left, the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale cannot afford to lose a single individual to a deadly collision with a large vessel. The right whale is a shore-hugging migratory species, and ship strikes pose one of the most significant threats to its survival and recovery. Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service denied a petition that wanted to strip some of the most effective protections for right whales against ship strikes – common sense speed limits.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) conducted a study from 1990 through 2008 and found that ship strikes killed 13 right whales. Using its authorities under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, in October 2008, the agency set ship speed limits requiring vessels 65 feet or larger to slow to 10 knots (about 12 mph) in particular areas at particular times, to give whales time to swim out of harm’s way. The zones and times are based on the right whale’s migratory route from its summer feeding areas off the New England coast to its winter calving grounds off the coast of Florida and Georgia. The speed limits apply when right whales are likely nearby, or when they are spotted in an area.

Right whale and calf, © NOAA

NMFS gave the ship speed limits a five year test run, and after review and public input, the agency made the rule permanent in 2013. Since the rule’s inception in 2008, no right whales have died from ship strikes in or near the designated areas. Before the rule, two right whales (often migrating females) died each year due to collisions, proving the speed limits a resounding success for right whale protection. Defenders and our partners worked to get the original rule established and made permanent, amid heavy opposition from the shipping industry. Despite the resistance, studies have shown the economic impact of the speed limits has been negligible Slowing down when coming into port after an ocean-spanning journey costs the ships less than five minutes off their travel time. Speed limits can even save shipping companies money by cutting down on fuel consumption. All in all, the economic impact comes out to a fraction of a percent. The benefits to right whales and other marine mammals from the ship speed limits far outweighs the trivial expense to the shipping industry.

Despite the tremendous benefits to right whales and the miniscule cost to industry, the American Pilots’ Association mounted a further attack on the rule. The group requested exemptions to the speed limits in various areas surrounding ports from New York to Jacksonville, Florida. Its petition claimed that slower speeds might impair a vessel’s safety and maneuverability. Yet the rule already has precautions built in, allowing a ship’s pilot or master to exceed the speed limit if necessary to ensure the ship’s safety; they need only explain the reason in the ship’s log. Records from ports show that ships have used this precaution successfully. In the more than six years the rule has been in effect, the speed limits have not caused any navigational accidents or mishaps.

To combat this attack on the rule, Defenders and our partners urged the agency to reject the petition, emphasizing the value and success of the speed limits. We also met with congressional staff members of key stakeholder states and committees, informing representatives about the issue and asking for their support to show NMFS that the speed limits are a no-brainer to protect right whales from collisions. Whale-watching is an important part of many of these states’ economies, and we received an overwhelmingly positive response to keep the rule in place to protect the critically endangered right whale.

Last week, NMFS stuck to its guns and denied the pilots’ association’s petition, staying strong for right whales. The agency’s decision came as fantastic news and a payoff for all our hard work. Thanks to NMFS, the ship speed limits have been a huge success. Looking forward, our next step will be continuing to advocate for ship speed limits across a greater area of right whale habitat and the species’ migratory route to protect the whales from extinction and put them on the road to recovery.

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In a recent court decision, a federal judge upheld NMFS’s decision to deny a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales into the U.S. for display, setting an important precedent for marine mammal protection.

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