Vessel speed limits must be mandatory offshore when endangered northern right whales are present, because ship strikes are a leading cause of deaths in the whale population now down to only around 400 animals, ocean conservation groups say in an appeal to the U.S. government.

“The unprecedented number of recent deaths and serious injuries warrants the agency acting quickly to ensure that this endangered species receives the protections necessary to reduce the risk of vessel strikes and ensure its continued existence throughout its range,” the groups state in a petition submitted Aug 6 to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Chris Oliver, administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“The time has come for NMFS to follow through on the promises it made in 2008 to expand the ship speed rule based on the best available scientific data to address the urgent crisis the right whale faces,” according to the groups Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund.

“While the species faces a plethora of threats, collisions with marine vessels remains one of the two primary threats inhibiting the species’ recovery and threatening its continued existence," according to the groups. "Since 2017, just over half of the known or suspected causes of mortality for the species have been attributed to vessel strikes, closely followed by incidental entanglements in fishing gear."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regularly publicizes its tracking of right whales offshore from the Gulf of Maine to Florida, mapping “dynamic management areas” based on aerial surveys of whale movements. The agency asks mariners operating vessels over 65 feet in length to voluntarily maintain a 10-knot speed limit in those areas, to reduce the risk of striking a whale.

Earlier this year the environmental group Oceana called for mandatory enforcement of the 10-knot speed limit when transiting dynamic management areas. The group issued a report in March, citing Automatic Identification System ship tracking data, that showed 41 percent of vessels transiting one area south of Nantucket ignored the voluntary speed limits in January through March 2020.

The petition filed Friday also calls for mandatory enforcement – and extending the speed limit to vessels under 65 feet. NOAA officials last week launched a new public awareness campaign aimed at recreational boaters, after a spring and summer of news and social media accounts of boaters having close encounters with whales in the New York Bight.

In late June one of 10 young right whales born during the 2019-20 calving season was found dead off New Jersey, with wounds showing it has been struck twice by vessels, leaving cuts from propellers and skegs, according to NOAA officials.

Federal law requires vessel operators to maintain a minimum 1,500-foot distance from right whales, but the young male calf and its mother had been observed off Florida earlier in the year with recreational boaters approaching too close, they said. In addition, another right whale calf was reported to be struck and injured by a vessel earlier this year off the coast of Georgia and has not been seen since.

Along with recreational boat traffic the Southeast winter calving grounds could be at growing risk from transiting ships too, with increasing containership, car carrier and other maritime traffic as port activity grows at Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and Florida ports.

The petition asks the National Marine Fisheries Service to expand the areas and times when the existing 10-knot rule applies, along with making it a mandatory restriction.

“What we are asking for are essentially school zones along our coast, areas where vessels have to slow down to keep boaters and whales safe without stopping traffic,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s North American office. “Ships slowing down saves whales, smaller vessels slowing down saves lives, everyone slowing down saves a species.”

“Just over half of the known or suspected causes of right whale deaths since 2017 have been attributed to vessel strikes, closely followed by entanglements in fishing gear,” the groups said in a joint statement.

The U.S. lobster fleet is under close scrutiny from NOAA over entanglements, and industry advocates defend fishermen’s response. Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, gives a breakdown of the 31 recorded right whale deaths since 2017 with 23 of those attributed to incidents in Canadian waters: eight vessel strikes, six entanglements, and nine undetermined. Of six were attributed to U.S. waters, two were vessel strikes and four undetermined. Two of those latter cases were whales found “without a distinguishing feature to tie them to a particular fishery or country," says McCarron. "Last year, all 10 right whale deaths were attributed to Canada."

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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