Ships must slow down more often to save whales, says feds

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PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Ships off the East Coast must slow down more often to help save an endangered species of whale from extinction, the federal government said Friday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the announcement via proposed new rules aimed at preventing ships from colliding with North Atlantic right whales. Collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear are the two biggest threats to the giant animals, which number fewer than 340 and whose population is shrinking.

Efforts to save the whales have long focused on fishing gearespecially the one used by East coast lobster fishers. The proposed vessel speed rules signal that the government wants the shipping industry to take on more responsibility.

“Changes to current vessel speed regulations are essential to stabilizing the continued decline of the right whale population and preventing the species from becoming extinct,” say the proposed rules, which are expected to be posted in the federal register.

The new rules would extend seasonal slow zones off the East Coast which require sailors to slow to 10 knots (19 kilometers per hour). They would also force more ships to comply with the rules by expanding the size classes that must slow down. The rules also state that NOAA would create a framework to implement mandatory speed restrictions when whales are known to be present outside seasonal slow-moving areas.

Federal authorities spent a few years reviewing speed regulations used to protect whales. Sailing rules have long focused on a patchwork of slow-moving areas that force sailors to slow down for whales. Some of the fields are mandatory, while others are optional.

Environmental groups have argued that many boats are breaking speed limits and that the rules need to be stricter. The environmental organization Oceana released a report in 2021 that said non-compliance reached nearly 90% in the voluntary areas and was also dangerously low in the mandatory areas.

“The government is today proposing a significant improvement in the protection of North Atlantic right whales, which are under constant threat from speeding,” said Gib Brogan, campaign manager at Oceana. “It’s no secret that high-speed vessels are rampant all along the North Atlantic right whale migration route, all the way up the East Coast.”

Many in the shipping industry were well aware that the new speed rules were on the way. The London-based International Chamber of Shipping, which represents more than 80% of the world’s merchant fleet, is working with the International Maritime Organization and other stakeholders to better protect right whales, said Chris Waddington, technical director from the room.

Chamber members are used to respecting speed limits in whaling areas, he said.

“The shipping industry takes the protection of whales seriously and has taken steps to protect them, from stakeholder engagement to speed reductions and re-routing,” Waddington said. “There’s always more that can be done, and that’s why we’re working with the IMO and conservationists on revising the maritime guidelines.”

Whales were once plentiful off the east coast, but their populations plummeted due to commercial whaling generations ago. Although they have been protected under the Endangered Species Act for decades, they have been slow to recover.

More than 50 whales were struck by ships between the spring of 1999 and the spring of 2018, according to NOAA records. Scientists have said in recent years that warming ocean temperatures are forcing whales to move away from protected areas and into shipping lanes in search of food.

Environmentalists said that was a good reason to strengthen protections. The proposed shipping rules will go through a public consultation process before becoming law.

“This proposal is a step in the right direction, but it won’t help a single right whale until it’s finalized,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.

The whales give birth off the coasts of Georgia and Florida and head north to feed in New England and Canada. They are popular with whale-watching tours that depart from places such as Provincetown, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine in the summer.

Members of the New England lobster fishing industry have argued that too many rules designed to save whales focus on fishing, not ship strikes. Some called the new ship speed rules late.

Fishermen are being unfairly held responsible for whale deaths from ship strikes, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, which is the largest fishing industry association on the East Coast.

“This puts enormous pressure on the lobster industry to continue modifying our fishery to account for right whale deaths unrelated to the lobster fishery,” McCarron said.

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