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Nautical speed limits proposed to help protect right whales from ship strikes

A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay, March 28, 2018, off the coast of Plymouth, Mass.
Michael Dwyer
AP file
A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay, March 28, 2018, off the coast of Plymouth, Mass.

The National Marine Fisheries Services is proposing rule changes aimed at reducing ship collisions with endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The changes include new seasonal speed zones and mandatory speed restrictions when whales are observed or acoustically detected. The proposed rule would apply to vessels 35 feet in length or longer, but allow those less than 65 feet in length to deviate from the speed restriction under certain conditions.

Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, says vessel speed limits protect both the whales and people.

"We've worked for 10 years now asking NOAA to consider vessels that were under 65 feet, not just because a concern for whales but also for operators. It's a human safety issue too," she says.

The vessel speed limit would be 10 knots. Federal regulators say numerous studies have indicated that slowing the speed of vessels reduces the risk of lethal vessel collisions.

Gib Brogan, campaign director for Oceana, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the planet's oceans, says that vessel speed limits should also apply to government vessels that are not involved in emergencies and national defense, and that vessel speed limits need to be better enforced by the Coast Guard and the Fisheries Service.

"Oceana has built a tool that uses transponders on vessels over 65 feet and we can see there are a large number of vessels that are breaking the speed limit. We provide this information to the Fisheries Service, and enforcement has only improved marginally over the last few years," he says.

Brogan says big ships face bigger fines for being late to port and speeding tickets are often looked at as the cost of doing business.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association says it is encouraged that NOAA is addressing the threat posed to North Atlantic right whales by ship strikes.

The MLA says it believes the federal government should apply the law equally among all sectors that might pose a risk to the whales, and that its efforts have been disproportionately and unfairly focused on lobster fisheries.

The Association says addressing ship strikes with new rules and strict enforcement is an important and long overdue first step.

Whale mother and calf pairs are at a higher risk of ship strikes because they nurse and rest near the surface and near shore.

There are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales left in existence.

Comments will be accepted on the new rule for 60 days before the federal government considers implementation.

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