There is a fierce battle brewing on Capitol Hill between scientists and environmental organizations on the one side and industry groups on the other concerning a proposal by NOAA Fisheries to update its 2008 vessel speed regulation protecting the North Atlantic right whale.
Vessel strikes, which cause bleeding and blunt force trauma, are one of the two primary causes of death and injury for the critically endangered right whale. Since right whales are dark-skinned, lack a dorsal fin, and swim just below the surface, vessel captains rarely see them in time to avoid collisions. With fewer than 340 surviving animals and only 70 reproductive females, the future of this species is dependent upon targeted science-based measures to reduce vessel speeds at times and in areas where right whales are at greatest risk.
Just like lower speed limits in school zones to protect children, seasonal slowdowns are needed to protect right whales in danger zones. NOAA Fisheries’ science-based vessel speed proposal establishes seasonal slow speed zones as well as dynamic speed zones for vessels 35 ft or longer to substantially reduce lethal collision risk.
Although some industry opposition centers around alleged risks to human safety from slower speeds, the proposed rule acknowledges emergency situations that threaten human health, safety or life and will expand existing safety exemption measures to ensure human health and safety always come first. Additionally, vessel collisions with large whales are also risky to people and in U.S. waters have resulted in injuries to occupants and necessitated Coast Guard rescues.
Seasonal slow speed zones are especially important during and after right whale calving season as mother-calf pairs are highly vulnerable to strikes. These pairs spend a considerable amount of time near the surface, making them more susceptible to collisions with boats. Unfortunately, over the past several years, vessel collisions have killed at least three right whale calves and a first-time mother in U.S. waters. Odds are, there is a 1 in 14 chance a calf will be killed by a vessel strike before they turn one.
Right whale deaths are significantly outpacing right whale births. The math is simple but terrible. A species that loses more individuals than it produces is on the path to extinction. If current trends continue without regulatory action, we will likely witness the functional extinction of the right whale by 2035. In the last seven years alone, there have been 34 observed right whale deaths. The true number is much higher, as only one-third of right whale deaths are ever documented. In addition, there have been 31 observed serious (i.e., likely lethal) injuries from vessel strikes and entanglements.
Congress voted to pause a rulemaking to address right whale entanglements, the other leading cause of death for right whales, for the next four years, making slowing vessels the only regulatory measure the administration can take to protect right whales in U.S. waters before 2028.
Defenders of Wildlife is urging action to protect this species. NOAA is required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, that was enacted by Congress to protect the North Atlantic right whale. Yet, political interference from Congress in the forms of harmful extinction riders, is impeding the deployment of science-based conservation measures to address these threats and is unequivocally pushing the world’s population of the last remaining right whales to extinction.
We need your help in asking your elected representatives to support the proposed vessel speed rule and allow NOAA Fisheries to finalize the rule free of political interference.