Speed Limit Proposed to Reduce Whale Collisions

Amitabh Avasthi
for National Geographic News
June 27, 2006
A newly proposed speed limit could help reduce collisions between
endangered right whales and ships along the U.S. East Coast, the U.S.
National Marine Fisheries Service recently announced.

Conservationists welcomed the proposal, saying it would help protect one of the world's most threatened whale species.

The right whale has been on the U.S. Endangered Species List since 1970, and only about 350 North Atlantic right whales are known to exist.

But shipping industry officials say more studies are needed before any new rule is implemented.

The planned rule calls for ships that are 65 feet (20 meters) or longer to reduce their speed to 10 knots—about 11.5 miles (18.5 kilometers) an hour—on specific routes during calving season.

Key shipping routes into Boston, Massachusetts, would be modified, so ships would steer clear of areas frequented by right whales.

In addition, regions known as Dynamic Management Areas would be imposed in places where right whales show up unexpectedly.

Such areas "would be established when a certain number of right whales [three or more] occur outside of the areas that are already seasonally managed by this proposed rule," explained Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

A 15-nautical-mile (about 17 miles, or 28 kilometers) buffer would be placed around where the whales are sighted and vessels could either slow down or take a detour.

"Ship strikes are the most significant human impact on right whales," said Donna Wieting, deputy director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Protected Resources (kids activity: right whales and people [lesson plan]).

"Each year there at least one or two strikes. This plan will provide no opportunity for that interaction."

Every Whale Counts

According to Knowlton, 25 of the 71 right whale deaths reported since 1970 resulted from ship strikes.

"A speed limit will give the whales a little more time to react to ships and successfully get away," Knowlton said.

"It will help prevent several mortalities annually, and over time that will be a huge benefit to the overall population."

Other marine wildlife experts agree.

"This measure isn't expected to give ships time to spot and avoid whales," said Karen Baragona, a whale and dolphin specialist with WWF, the international conservation organization.

"It's intended to give these relatively slow-moving whales a little extra time to react to and swim away from an oncoming ship."

WWF has been working with the New England Aquarium and the shipping industry to encourage ships to avoid an area in eastern Canada called Roseway Basin.

Right whales spend part of each summer feeding and raising their calves in this region (related photo: southern right whale and her calf). Every death from a ship collision has a grave impact on future generations, Baragona says, especially if the whale is a female.

"By this token, saving just a few females each year—because of the exponential contribution to future generations of right whales—could put the species squarely on the road to recovery."

Shippers Unsure

Members of the shipping industry, however, are not sure the new speed limit will decrease whale deaths.

Don O'Hare is vice president of the World Shipping Council, a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C.

"We have worked closely with the government to protect whales, but they have not convinced us that reducing the speed of ships will save the whales," he said.

He points to data collected by federal agencies that show the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard are responsible for 24 percent of all ship strikes on whales between 1975 and 2002.

Federal ships "are not required to reduce their speed under this rule," he noted.

O'Hare also says the new plan doesn't factor in hydrodynamic data on how boats churn seawater at various speeds, which had been previously promised.

NOAA's Wieting acknowledges that hydrodynamic studies are still being conducted, but, she says, the plan does include computer simulations instead.

And while government ships would be exempt from the proposed rule, they are still responsible for protecting the whales under the Endangered Species Act, she notes.

The plan will go through a two-month period of public comment before any final decision is made.

"If all goes well, we could see a drastic reduction in the number of whale mortalities from ship strikes," Wieting added.

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