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

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