Groups applaud new rules to protect right whales, but condemn premature phase-out of rules after only five years

(10/08/2008) - WASHINGTON, DC  - The Humane Society of the United States and Defenders of Wildlife applauded regulations released today intended to reduce the number of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales killed by ship strikes, but expressed grave concern at the premature phase out of the rules. The rules, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, reduce ship speeds in certain areas, but are set to expire after only five years.

“The whales have needed these protections for a long time,” said Sierra Weaver, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “It’s great to finally have them in effect and doing some good. But these aren’t the permanent regulations we were promised, which the whales still desperately need.  Five years is not permanent, and will not recover this critically endangered species.” 

During the past eight years, the Bush administration has repeatedly stalled efforts to regulate ship speeds. The National Marine Fisheries Service proposed a risk reduction rule in 2006 only after Defenders of Wildlife, The HSUS and others filed a lawsuit challenging the agency’s refusal to immediately implement protective regulations. Despite promises that regulations would be finalized in June 2007, the draft rule remained stuck at the Office of Management and Budget as a result of political interference by the White House. On June 26, 2008, the groups filed a new lawsuit to again push the agency to finalize the rule. The organizations have been represented in all phases of the litigation by the firm of Meyer, Glitzenstein and Crystal.

Today’s rule mandates that vessels bigger than 65 feet slow to a speed of 10 knots in busy port areas along the East Coast of the United States, encompassing the whale’s known feeding habitat in the northeast, its calving grounds off the coast of Florida, and  its seasonal migratory route between these areas.

“Speed in collisions has long been known to be a factor in mortality, and historic records show far fewer whale deaths at slower speeds” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director at The HSUS. “The slight cost to the shipping industry is more than outweighed by the improved prospect for survival of this imperiled species.”

The five-year sunset clause included in the final regulations was first publicly exposed in the Final Environmental Impact Statement released in August of this year. Conservation and animal protection organizations expressed vehement opposition to this phase out of protections for such a critically endangered species. While the administration has stated that research would be conducted to evaluate the rule’s effectiveness before it expires, the administration has at the same time slashed budgets for whale research and for examining bodies of dead whales to determine the cause of death.

Between 2002 and 2006, the most recent years for which data are available, 12 right whales were seriously injured or killed due to collisions with ships; several of them pregnant females.  

“We are pleased that the administration has taken steps to reduce risk to right whales” said Young, “but it is important that the rules remain in place longer than five years, when the NMFS’ own risk assessments indicate that they are at risk of extinction within the next 200 years if deaths from shipping and fishery entanglements are not reduced.”




The Humane Society of the United States is the nation's largest animal protection organization – backed by 10.5 million Americans, or one of every 30. For more than a half-century, The HSUS has been fighting for the protection of all animals through advocacy, education and hands-on programs. Celebrating animals and confronting cruelty – On the web at


Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than one million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit



Kristen Everett, HSUS, (301)721-6440
Sierra Weaver, Defenders of Wildlife, (202)772-3274