Ship strike reduction rule proves effective protecting North Atlantic right whales

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NOAA Fisheries eliminates expiration clause

NOAA officials today issued a final rule continuing protections to reduce lethal vessel collisions with the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The ship strike reduction rule, first implemented in 2008, requires large ships to travel at speeds of 10 knots or less seasonally, in areas where right whales feed and reproduce, as well as along migratory routes in-between. Thanks to cooperation and partnership with the shipping and transportation industry, indications are that the rule is working as intended.

“Since the ship speed restrictions went into effect, no known fatal ship strikes of North Atlantic right whales have occurred in the management zones," said Mark Schaefer, deputy NOAA administrator and assistant secretary of commerce for conservation and management. “This rule is working. Before this rule went into effect, 13 right whales died as a result of being hit by vessels in the same areas during an 18-year study period.”

With only about 425 North Atlantic right whales in existence, these whales are among the most endangered in the world. The top threats to the species are ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.

Right whales are highly vulnerable to ship collisions, because their migration route crosses major East Coast shipping lanes. Measures taken by NOAA to prevent entanglement of right whales in fishing gear coupled with NOAA and the International Maritime Organization’s ship strike reduction efforts provide one of the most comprehensive approaches ever taken by NOAA to help large whales recover.

The rule requires vessels that are 65 feet and greater in length to travel at 10 knots or less during the seasons right whales are expected to be present in designated areas along the East Coast.

In the mid-Atlantic area, the 10-knot speed restrictions extend out to 20 nautical miles around major ports. NOAA Fisheries researchers report that approximately 80 percent of right whale sightings in the mid-Atlantic are within 20 nautical miles of shore. NOAA also established a program for temporary voluntary speed limits in other areas when an aggregation of three or more right whales is confirmed.

The rule allows vessels to exceed the limit if needed to ensure vessel safety.

The rule is part of NOAA’s broader ship strike reduction efforts. Existing protective actions include surveying whale aggregation areas by aircraft, extensive mariner outreach programs and mandatory ship reporting systems that provide advisories and information on right whale locations to mariners.   

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