Emergency petition to protect right whale mothers and calves from ship strikes

WASHINGTON – Environmental groups filed an emergency rule-making petition with the National Marine Fisheries Authority today to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from being struck and killed by ships in their calving grounds off the coast of the southeastern United States.

The rule required reflects the Fisheries Service’s proposal to set speed limits for vessels of 35 feet or larger and to expand the areas where speed limits apply. The agency has not yet finalized the proposal, and the emergency rule will help prevent accidents such as the boat collision that killed a right whale calf off Florida last year and likely injured its mother, who has not been seen since. This collision also resulted in a loss of $1.2 million to the ship.

“Speeding ships cannot be allowed to kill mother or baby right whales during this year’s calving season, so federal officials need to act quickly,” said Kristen Munsell, ocean legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Endangered right whales need better protection from ships now, or the species faces extinction. It is up to the Fisheries Service to implement more preventive speed restrictions in the only known whale birthing grounds.”

Ship strikes are one of two major threats to the existence of this species, along with entanglement in commercial fishing gear. Right whales begin giving birth to calves in mid-November and the season continues until mid-April. Both females and calves in southeastern waters are particularly vulnerable during that period. Current regulations are not enough to protect whales, and changes proposed by the Fisheries Service in August seem unlikely to take effect before this year’s calving season.

“Right whales have traveled the Southeast since time immemorial to give birth and safely nurture their calves in the warm, shallow waters,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. But birthing grounds have become a killing ground. If we don’t protect the vulnerable mother and calf pairs, we won’t be able to protect the future of this species.”

Right whales give birth and graze their calves off the southeast coast from Cape Fear, North Carolina, in the north, down to Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the south. Pregnant women and mothers who have lactating calves are especially at risk of stroke due to the amount of time they spend near the surface of the water. Female calves are also the most important whale to the species’ survival and recovery. Scientists do not know any other reasons for the birth of the right whale.

During the last calving season, a 54-foot boat collided with a newborn calf and its mother off St. Augustine, Florida, killing the calf and seriously injuring the mother, who has not been seen since.

“A newborn calf spends most of the first few months of its life on the surface with its mother,” said Erica Fuller, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “Given the difficulty of seeing these whales in the best of conditions, slowing the boats down is the only way to prevent collisions like those that have killed whales, injured people and caused significant damage to ships in the past.”

Today’s petition comes after the Fisheries Service released a proposed rule in August 2022 to extend the existing vessel speed rule to include smaller vessels and more areas. The current rule requires ships 65 feet in length and larger to slow to 10 knots or less to protect right whales in certain areas at certain times. The agency noted that the expansion of the base is necessary to prevent the whale’s extinction. But the agency’s proposed rule does not appear to be on track to take effect by the start of the birth season, necessitating a temporary solution.

“Deceleration is the best way to reduce accidental collisions, which is why there are speed zones around schools,” said Regina Asmotis Silvia, executive director of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Organization. “Beating a whale not only endangers whales, but can also cause serious damage to ships and injuring passengers. Slowing down can save lives while also saving species.”

A petition by conservation groups urges the Fisheries Service to immediately implement the agency’s proposed rule on right whale calving tours. It is asking the agency to expand the current seasonal speed zone to include more waters in the delivery areas between Florida and North Carolina and to apply the rule to ships 35 feet in length and larger. The petition also requests that the agency make dynamic speed zones mandatory in delivery areas after several reports that ships were not complying with the voluntary measures.

Scientists at the New England Aquarium recently determined that there are only 340 true whales in the North Atlantic, with about 70 females. The population has continued to decline from previous years, and right whales only give birth every 3 to 10 years.

The Fisheries Department has determined that, due to high mortality and declining populations, a minimum of 50 calves should be born each year for several years to halt decline and put the species on a path to recovery.

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