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Ships Sailing U.S. Atlantic Coast Must Slow for Whales
WASHINGTON, DC, November 2, 2009 (ENS) - The U.S. Coast Guard reminds operators of vessels 65 feet or greater in length that the Right Whale Ship Strike Reduction Rule took effect for the first time on Sunday. The new rule requires those vessels to slow down while operating in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic waters where North Atlantic right whales are known to migrate, calve and nurse.

All vessels 65 ft (19.8 m) or longer must travel at 10 knots or less in coastal waters from Rhode Island to Georgia beginning November 1, 2009 and continuing through April 30, 2010 to reduce the threat of ship collisions with critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The speed restrictions are based on the migration pattern of the whales. Slow moving North Atlantic right whales, among the most endangered whales in the world, are highly vulnerable to ship collisions, since their primary feeding and migration areas overlap with major East Coast shipping lanes.

Ship and whale in Atlantic coastal waters (Photo by Harriet Corbett courtesy New England Aquarium)

"The Coast Guard, in coordination with National Marine Fisheries Service, has a long history of protecting living marine resources and will continue to take action to protect the right whale from ship strikes and other threats," said Steven Tucker, the U.S. Coast Guard's deputy chief of Marine Protected Species Enforcement.

"Key among those measures is Coast Guard communication with mariners in areas where right whales congregate or transit," Tucker said.

Protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the North Atlantic right whale is one of world's rarest animals, with between 300 and 400 individuals in the entire population.

The potential for the species to recover is reduced when right whales are injured by ship strikes or entanglements resulting from human activity - two of the major threats to the species.

The 10-knot speed restriction extends out to 20 nautical miles around major mid-Atlantic ports.

According to researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA< about 83 percent of right whale sightings in the mid-Atlantic region occur within 20 nautical miles of shore.

The speed restriction also applies in waters off New England and the southeastern United States, where whales gather seasonally.

The speed restrictions apply in the following approximate locations at the following times; they are based on times whales are known to be in these areas:

  • Mid-Atlantic U.S. areas from Rhode Island to Georgia from November 1 to April 30
  • Southeastern U.S. from St. Augustine, Florida to Brunswick, Georgia from November 15 to April 15
  • Cape Cod Bay from January 1 to May 15
  • Off Race Point at northern end of Cape Cod from March 1 to April 30
  • Great South Channel of New England from April 1 to July 31
NOAA will also call for temporary voluntary speed limits in other areas or times when a group of three or more right whales is confirmed.

Scientists will assess whether the speed restrictions are effective before the rule expires in 2013.

This summer, two changes to shipping lanes into Boston were implemented to protect North Atlantic right whales. From June 1 each year, ships 300 gross tons and above are asked to avoid an area in the Great South Channel from April through July, when right whales face the highest chance of being struck by ships. The channel is a feeding area for the critically endangered whales.

Also from June 1 each year, ships transiting primarily from the south and entering Boston Harbor in shipping lanes are traveling a slightly different path. The north-south traffic lanes have been narrowed by one nautical mile to reduce the threat of ship collisions with endangered right whales and other whale species.

Approximately 3,500 ships move through the Boston shipping lanes area every year, and more than half of the world's North Atlantic right whales are known to be in this area during the spring.

The International Maritime Organization adopted both of these changes, so they will be reflected on all charts globally and used by the international shipping industry.

Since 2001, 12 right whales have been struck and killed by vessels along the Atlantic coast, according to the New England Aquarium.

For the last 10 years, the New England Aquarium's North Atlantic right whale team and other protection groups have been working with the federal government to pass this mandatory speed limit despite concerns from the shipping industry and resistance from the Bush administration.

"At long last, the ocean is going to be a little bit safer for right whales - cause for celebration amongst the many of us who have worked for the past decade to see this rule enacted," said Amy Knowlton of the Aquarium's right whale research team.

"The passage of the ship strike reduction rule is the culmination of years of dedicated work by a variety of groups scientists, policy experts, conservationists, state and federal governments, and the shipping industry itself and is based on solid scientific data," Knowlton said.

Researchers have found that the probability of right whales dying after being struck drops from over 80% when a vessel is traveling at 15 knots or more to just above 20 percent when a vessel is traveling at 10 knots or less. Average vessel speeds in critical right whale habitats have been around 15 knots.

"We're really excited about this," said Kerry Lagueux, an associate scientist for the Aquarium's research department and a geographer who uses mapping technology to help identify potential conflicts between right whales, ships, and fishing gear entanglements.

Aquarium researchers are using Automatic Identification System technology, a transmitter system that sends data from vessels to a receiver they carry on their survey plane. This system has enabled researchers in the Southeast to collect data on ship speeds, vessel types, and port destinations in order to evaluate how vessels have responded to right whale information in the past. It will now be used to monitor their actions in response to this new regulation.

Click here for maps of the speed restricted areas and a compliance guide.

To report a suspected violation in the seasonal management areas call the national hotline at 1-800-853-1964.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.



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