Nationwide standard pitched for vessel speed zones protecting whales
A rare right whale and her baby spotted in the Gulf near Pensacola Pass. Image via Pensacola News Journal.

rare right wale
Petitions haven’t seen much success as of late.

With Congress placing the federal government on a six-year wait to put in place new regulations to protect North Atlantic right whales, two groups advocating for whales filed an administrative rule-making petition pushing the government to protect all whales in U.S. waters.

“Ship strikes are already a leading cause of whale mortality in U.S. waters and the threat is growing,” said Rick Steiner, a marine ecologist and Chairman of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility’s (PEER) board of directors.

Right whales are not unlike manatees in their tendency to swim slowly and deliberately at the water’s surface. He said large vessels have an audio effect in that the bow blocks engine noise and creates a quiet area ahead of the ship, leaving whales unaware.

“Simply put, many of our busiest coastal shipping routes are death traps for whales,” Steiner said.

The hope is that such standards would protect all whale species off the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts.

PEER and The Ocean Foundation filed the petition, which is the first to propose a nationwide minimum standard for whale safety zones. NOAA Fisheries would establish whale safety zones for all large ships entering or exiting American ports or transiting through marine sanctuaries and monuments.

“Only mandatory whale safety measures will stem the rising tide of preventable whale deaths,” PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse said. “NOAA needs to act now if it wants to prevent what will be a cascade of whale extinctions in coming years.”

The zones would extend 30 nautical miles seaward from American ports, and include what is called the U.S. Territorial Sea, extending 12 nautical miles from shore.

All vessels 65 feet and longer would have to travel at 10 knots or less in daytime, and 8 knots or less at night, taking the shortest route possible. They also have to post bow watches, slowing and taking “other reasonable evasive action” when the watch spots a whale.

Experts believe there are fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales in existence, with fewer than 70 calving females. Research indicates that every right whale death for the last 50 years or so is caused by people, most often through heavy rope, from lobster and crab fixed-gear traps, and vessel strikes.

While they mostly live and feed off the coast of New England and the Canadian Maritimes, right whales travel south to Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia to calve.

NOAA presently administers slow zones and dynamic management areas for North Atlantic right whales in the Northeast, and seasonal management areas along the Atlantic Coast.

Petitions haven’t seen much success as of late, with NOAA drawing attention in rejecting a couple of the most recent efforts. 

“Right whales have journeyed to the Southeast since time immemorial to birth and nurse their calves in the safety of warm, shallow waters,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, after NOAA denied their petition.

“But the calving grounds have become killing grounds. NOAA has dragged its feet on updating the vessel speed rule for over a decade; right whale mothers and calves have paid for this delay with their lives. The agency’s decision not to take emergency action to protect mothers and calves puts the species’ entire future at risk.”

Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Jacksonville and previously covered state politics, environmental issues and courts for the News-Leader in Fernandina Beach. You can reach Wes at [email protected] and @WesWolfeFP. Facebook:


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