Feds Hoping To Extend Whale Protection Rules

OCEAN CITY — The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) this week announced a proposal to make permanent rules the agency implemented five years ago to protect highly endangered right whales that migrate through and birth young in the waters off the mid-Atlantic coast.

On Wednesday, NMFS officials announced the 60-day public comment period is now open on the agency’s proposal to permanently implement rules the agency adopted five years ago to reduce the number of collisions by ocean-going vessels and North Atlantic right whales in certain seasonal management areas along the east coast from Maine to Florida including vast sections off the mid-Atlantic coast. The Seasonal Management Areas include vast sections of ocean at the mouths of both the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Bay, which overlap in areas well off the coast of Ocean City and Assateague.

Right whales are among the most endangered species in the world and are highly vulnerable to ship collisions. As part of NMFS’ long-standing efforts to recover the right whale population, rules were put in place five years ago to reduce an ocean-going vessel’s speed to 10 knots or less during certain times of the year and in certain designated locations called seasonal management areas, some of which are located off the mid-Atlantic coast. However, the rules are set to expire on December 31, 2013, and NMFS officials are now seeking to make them permanent.

Since the rules were put in place in 2008, NMFS reports no right whale ship-strike deaths have been reported in the designated Seasonal Management Areas. Modeling studies indicate the rule changes have reduced the probability of fatal ship strikes of right whales by 80 to 90 percent.

Reducing ship speeds in the designated areas lengthens voyage times and comes with a cost, but NMFS’ revised estimates indicate the restrictions cost the shipping industry and other maritime interests about one third of the original 2008 projections. Much of the industry has embraced the rule changes with participation and compliance rates high. In most cases, vessels have incorporated speed restrictions into their standard operations and voyage planning.

“Reducing ship speeds in areas where there endangered right whales works,” said NOAA Fisheries Acting Administrator Sam Rauch. “It is a proven method to reduce deaths and serious injuries to these incredible creatures. Making these protections permanent will make U.S. east coast waters safer for right whales and allow them to reach full maturity, which is critical to their long-term survival.”

The rule proposes to continue existing speed restrictions during migration periods along three vast regions of the east coast including the mid-Atlantic. The measures are implemented during a time of year when right whales are known to frequent the designated areas. The speed restrictions apply to vessels that are 65 feet in length or longer, but do not apply to federal agency vessels.

Historically depleted by commercial whaling, the North Atlantic right whale also suffers injury and death from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. These events have contributed to the decline of the species and its ability to recover. Biologists believe there are currently about 450 right whales in the population along the east coast, but that number appears to be growing steadily since the speed limit restrictions in the seasonal management areas were implemented in 2008.