NOAA To Continue Right Whale Protection Measures

OCEAN CITY — Buoyed by the success of the program, federal fisheries officials this month announced they were renewing rules put in place five years ago to protect highly endangered right whales that migrate through and birth young in the waters off the mid-Atlantic coast including Maryland.
NOAA Fisheries officials last issued a final rule that will continue protections to reduce lethal vessel collisions with the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. The ship strike reduction rule, first implemented in 2008, required large ships and other vessels to travel at speeds of 10 knots or less at certain times of the year in areas where right whales are known to migrate and birth their young, including vast areas in federal waters off the coast of Ocean City, Assateague and the entire mid-Atlantic region.
The NOAA Fisheries rule was implemented in 2008 to reduce vessel strikes of right whales in certain seasonal management areas along the east coast from Maine to Florida. In the mid-Atlantic area, the identified seasonal management areas include vast sections of ocean at the mouths of the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Bay, which overlap in areas well off the coast of Ocean City and Assateague.
In the five years since the new rules were adopted, they are apparently achieving the desired results, thanks in large part to the cooperation of the shipping and transportation industries. With the rules set to expire on Dec. 31, NOAA Fisheries announced the agency was extending them as part of a long-term effort to make them permanent.
“Since the ship speed restrictions went into effect, no known fatal ship strikes of right whales have occurred in the management zones,” said NOAA Administrator and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Conservation and Management Mark Schaefer. “This rule is working. Before this rule went into effect, 13 right whales died as a result of being hit by vessels in the same areas.”
Right whales are among the most endangered species in the world and are highly vulnerable to ship collisions. As part of NOAA’s 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 in the seasonal management areas. The rule requires vessels that are 65 feet in length or greater to travel at 10 knots or less during the seasons when right whales are expected to be present in the designated areas along the mid-Atlantic coast.
In the mid-Atlantic area, the 10-knot speed restrictions extend out to 20 nautical miles around major ports. NOAA Fisheries researchers report that approximately 80 percent of the right whale sightings in the mid-Atlantic area are within 20 miles of the shore.
NOAA has also established a program for temporary voluntary speed limits in other areas when an aggregation of three or more right whales is confirmed. The rule allows vessels to exceed the limit if needed to ensure vessel safety.
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 NOAA 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.
The rule extension will 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.
The rule regarding right whales that was extended is part of NOAA’s broader effort to reduce ship strikes. Existing protective actions include surveying whale aggregation areas by aircraft, extensive mariner outreach programs and mandatory ship reporting systems that provide advisories and other information on right whale locations to mariners.