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.

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