Ship Speed Limits Sought off Atlantic Coast to Protect Endangered Right Whales

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WASHINGTON (June 28, 2012) — Wildlife conservation and animal protection groups filed a legal petition seeking additional ship speed limits in North Atlantic right whale habitat. The petition asks the National Marine Fisheries Service to extend the existing 10-knot speed limit on the Atlantic coast beyond its December 2013 expiration date and to expand the areas and times when ship speed limits apply to avoid collisions that kill endangered whales.

“NMFS enacted the ship speed rule because right whales were literally being run into the ground by the commercial shipping industry,” said Ralph Henry, senior attorney with The Humane Society of the United States. “Extending the existing regulation is a common sense step toward moving this critically endangered species out of the emergency room and onto the path to recovery.”

Despite the fact that North Atlantic right whales have been listed under the Endangered Species Act for more than three decades, ship strikes remain one of the top threats to the animals’ survival. Only around 400 North Atlantic right whales remain, making these whales among the rarest in the world. With one or two whales killed or seriously injured each year by ship strikes, and likely more that go unreported, their future is in jeopardy. The whales’ coastal feeding, breeding and nursing grounds coincide with some of the busiest shipping areas in the United States.

“Slower ships will speed up right whale recovery by avoiding collisions in the places where these whales raise their families,” said Sarah Uhlemann, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Speed limits are a simple and effective way to keep whales from dying unnecessary deaths.”

The groups’ petition seeks to address the unprecedented inclusion of a “sunset” provision in the original 2008 rule, which requires the rule to expire unless the NMFS affirmatively acts to extend it.  A recent agency review of the rule found that not only should the agency extend the rule, but it should also amend the rule to better protect this highly endangered species. Despite these findings, NMFS has not taken any action to respond.

“Protections for highly endangered whales should not be removed until the whales have recovered,” said Sierra Weaver, senior staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “We hope the agency will follow the advice of its own experts and act quickly to make sure there is no gap in protections.”

The groups have also called on the agency to expand the areas and times when speed restrictions apply, including near Jeffrey’s Ledge and Jordan Basin in the Northeast and unprotected areas farther offshore in the Mid-Atlantic where whales are found each year. 

“If we let this ruling end it would be a travesty - one that would intentionally risk the survival of a species. We look forward to a day that right whales are no longer in need of this level of protection, but today is, sadly, not that day.” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

In addition to protecting right whales, slowing ships will reduce the impact of vessel collisions with other protected species, including humpback, fin and minke whales. Slower ships also produce less noise and air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions.

The petition was filed by The Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Background on Right Whales

  • The North Atlantic right whale was decimated by commercial whaling in past centuries, and despite being protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1970, has not recovered.
  • The whales, reaching 55 feet in length, migrate from their calving grounds off the southeastern United States to their feeding grounds off the northeastern United States and Canada.
  • Adult female right whales reproduce slowly, giving birth to one calf every four years and not reaching reproductive maturity until age 8.
  • The primary threats to imperiled right whales are ship strikes, entanglement in commercial fishing gear, habitat degradation, rising noise levels, global warming, ocean acidification and pollution.

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Defenders of Wildlifeis dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1 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 defenders.org.

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