Wildlife & Nature

Slow Down is Right Way to Protect Endangered Whales

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A dead North Atlantic right whale washed ashore in Virginia in February 2023, the victim of an apparent ship strike. (Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Foundation Stranding Response Program/NOAA)

Four conservation groups have asked a federal judge to set a Nov. 1 deadline for long-delayed federal action to finalize expanded vessel strike protections for critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Calving season is only months away and right whale mothers and calves will suffer the most if new speed limit protections are not in effect, according to the conservationists.

Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and the Conservation Law Foundation filed the request in a 2021 case challenging the government’s unreasonable delay in updating a 2008 vessel speed rule that sets seasonal speed limits for vessels 65 feet and longer in zones along the East Coast.

The conservation groups have also challenged “unreasonable governmental delay in acting on a 2022 proposal to update the rule.” The groups have petitioned to expand the rule to include smaller vessels and additional safe areas since 2012.

“There is nothing reasonable about waiting four years to protect a species that faces extinction from getting maimed and killed by boats,” said Erica Fuller, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation. “This delay jeopardizes not just right whales, but every other ongoing effort to recover the species. The administration must issue a final rule before this next calving season begins.

North Atlantic right whales annually travel from their calving grounds off Georgia and Florida to feeding grounds off New England and Canada. The journey of 1,000 miles or more has become increasingly dangerous as waters have warmed and the whales have strayed from protected areas in search of food, which makes them more vulnerable to collisions with ships and entanglement in commercial fishing gear.

“While critically important to the ocean’s health, the number of North Atlantic right whales is dwindling to dire levels,” according to the Falmouth, Mass.-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). “With less than 80 breeding females, the number of calves being born each year cannot keep pace with the number of human-caused deaths.”

WHOI scientists note that the threats to these whales, as well as their precipitously low numbers, are directly related to human causes: fishing gear entanglement, climate change, and vessel strikes.

Speed limits have been in place for larger boats since 2008. The changes proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2022 would expand the area and timing of seasonal speed restrictions and impose speed restrictions on most vessels between 35 and 65 feet in length.

The North Atlantic right whale is approaching extinction, with only about 360 left, including some 70 reproductively active females. Vessel strikes are a leading cause of death and injury for the species, with mother-calf pairs and juveniles at disproportionate risk, according to conservationists.

North Atlantic right whale ‘Infinity’ and her calf were struck off the coast of Florida in February 2021. Her calf, pictured above, died from the strike. Infinity was spotted several days later with injuries suggestive of a vessel strike. (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission/NOAA)

The four environmental groups said seven mortalities and serious — i.e., likely lethal — injuries from vessel strikes have been documented since they filed suit, all during the species’ November-April calving season.

“We are watching this species’ extinction unfold in real time on this administration’s watch,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “We’re asking the court to enforce the law because the [National Marine Fisheries] clearly isn’t up to the task.”

The updated rule would establish new seasonal speed zones in times and places right whales are most at risk of vessel strikes. The groups said the expanded protective measures are “based on extensive data on the overlap of right whales and vessel traffic in U.S. waters.”

In these zones, vessels 35 feet and longer would be held to a mandatory speed limit of 10 nautical miles per hour (11.5 mph).

Conservationists say speed limits are the only known way to minimize lethal collisions between whales and vessels. Although future technologies may be developed to enhance right whale detection, reduce collision risk, and improve safety for both mariners and right whales, no such technologies exist now, they noted.

“North Atlantic right whales are hovering on the brink of extinction, and the last thing they need is more delay in reducing vessel speeds in some of their most important habitat,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s been abundantly clear for a long time that slowing vessels down saves whales, so it’s frustrating that the Fisheries Service has dragged its feet on such a straightforward solution.”

Monsell noted 2% of the right whale population has already been lost this year, and “the most tragic aspect of that statistic is that these losses were preventable.”

Among some of this year’s deaths: Pilgrim’s 2023 calf was only a year old when a vessel struck and killed her, fracturing her skull. Right whale #1950 was hit so hard that her back was blown open and her spine was fractured, and her newborn calf can’t survive without her so she will also die.

While some politicians, mostly Republicans, a former president running for reelection, nonprofits with links to fossil fuel interests, and wealthy coastal property owners falsely, according to marine scientists, blame offshore wind for the deaths of these marine mammals, they ignore the whales battered, broken, and killed by vessel strikes.

In fact, there are routine attempts to weaken or discard laws designed to protect North Atlantic right whales. For instance, Republican Rep. Buddy Carter of Georgia has proposed a yearslong delay in changes to federal rules meant to expand protective slow zones.

Carter’s bill would prevent any amendments or updates to the right whale vessel strike reduction rule until Dec. 31, 2030. He reportedly said the proposed rule changes would “cause grave safety issues for recreational vessels and pilot vessels alike” and economic harm.

“Unfortunately, if this rule goes into effect, boaters who use 35-foot or larger vessels will simply not be taking fishing trips and the market will die for these kind of vessels,” he claimed.

Other Republicans have claimed government protections for endangered whales have raised gasoline prices, by creating an “E-ZPass lane for whales in the Gulf.”

North Atlantic right whales are at heightened risk for vessel strikes because they spend a lot of time at or close to the surface. Vessel strikes are a primary threat to the species, according to NOAA.

“For decades, vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear have been the two primary causes of right whale injury and death, according to the federal agency. “Researchers found that between 2003 and 2018, in cases where a cause of death could be determined, all juvenile and adult right whale deaths were attributable to human activities.”

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