Whale Collisions Spur Call for Speed Limits at Sea

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 21, 2005
Alarmed by the deaths of eight North Atlantic right whales in the past
16 months, some scientists are calling for immediate protections. Listed
as endangered by the U.S. government, the whales are now believed to
total about 300.

Four of the right whales were killed by human activities—three by ship collisions and one by fishing gear. A fifth whale was probably also killed in a ship collision.

The deaths were particularly worrying to conservationists, because six of the whales were adult females, three carrying near-term fetuses.

"This loss is a dramatic increase over recent years," said Scott Kraus, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. "The right whale is now in an extremely precarious position, as it appears that deaths are exceeding births."

Kraus is the lead author of "Right Whales in Crisis," a report that will be published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

Whale advocates say that emergency measures should be introduced immediately to reduce the risk of ship collisions.

Among those measures could be speed limits for ships traveling through in right whale areas—a move supported by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service but resisted by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Running the Gauntlet

Right whales got their name from whalers who considered them the "right" whales to kill because of their large size, coastal distribution, and slow swimming speed. And unlike other whale species, these stocky creatures also float after death, making them relatively easy to retrieve.

North Atlantic right whales, which are closely related to North Pacific and South Atlantic right whales, were almost hunted to extinction in the mid-1700s. A hunting ban was eventually introduced in 1935.

Today the biggest threat facing right whales is collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear.

Right whales inhabit the coastal waters of eastern North America, from Florida to Canada's Bay of Fundy—regions that are heavily used by the shipping and fishing industries.

"Mothers of this population tend to go to the southeastern United States to give birth," Kraus said. "They basically run the gauntlet of all the shipping channels that come out of the East Coast of the United States."

Last year 28 North Atlantic right whale calves were born, up from an average of 23 calves for each of the last five years.

The death rate, however, may be significantly higher, though it can be tough to track.

The detection rate for mortality is only 17 percent, meaning most dead right whales are never found. "When you see 8 animals dead on the beach, does that mean as many as 47 animals actually died last year?" Kraus said.

Entanglement deaths are particularly difficult to identify, Kraus says, because whales entangled in fishing gear tend to stop eating and lose a lot of weight, which makes their corpses less buoyant.

"When they die they tend to sink, so we don't see many [whales killed by] entanglements on the beach," he said. "The ship kills are usually fat and healthy animals, so they float and we end up with them on the beach."

Coast Guard

Some whale-reporting systems have been implemented in an effort to reduce the number of ship strikes. For example, when large ships enter two key right whale habitats off the U.S. East Coast, they are required to report to a shore-based marine station for information about recent whale sightings.

In the Bay of Fundy the International Maritime Association moved an outbound shipping lane that overlapped with right whale distribution, reducing by 95 percent the probability of a ship encountering a right whale.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (also known as NOAA Fisheries) recently updated its formal plan to promote the recovery of the right whale through a series of management and research efforts.

In May the service asked the U.S. Coast Guard to collaborate on an effort to encourage a speed limit of 12 knots (about 14 miles an hour) in areas used by right whales. The Coast Guard rejected the offer in June, saying that, among other things, limits could hamper international trade and military rescue operations.

"The Coast Guard is concerned from an international law and policy standpoint with the imposition of new restrictions on vessels engaged in international navigation, such as speed and routing restrictions," Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard in Washington, D.C., told National Geographic News this week.

"The imposition of such restrictions must account for the potential for other nations to impose operational restrictions for other purposes on U.S. vessels, citing U.S. restrictions as precedent," Commander Carter said.

Greg Silber, coordinator of recovery activities for large whale species at NOAA Fisheries in Silver Spring, Maryland, says the dialogue with the Coast Guard will continue over ways to reduce whale mortality rates.

"This doesn't mean that we're not going to keep on trying," Silber said. "I view [the speed limit request] as a relatively small step in a much bigger structure we're putting together. It's not an easy process."

Kraus, the New England Aquarium scientist, says immediate action is necessary.

"We need to turn around the human causes of mortality in this population if it is going to survive," he said.

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