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Oceana Finds Most Vessels Exceeding Speed Limits in Areas Designed to Protect Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales Along U.S. Atlantic Coast

Oceana released a new report finding that most vessels are exceeding speed limits in areas designed to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, of which only around 360 remain. Oceana analyzed vessel speeds from 2017 to 2020 in speed zones established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) along the U.S. Atlantic coast, and found non-compliance was as high as almost 90% in mandatory speed zones, and non-cooperation was as high as almost 85% in voluntary areas.

Collisions with vessels are one of two leading causes of injury and death for North Atlantic right whales. Studies have found that slowing vessel speeds to 10 knots reduces a North Atlantic right whale’s risk of death from vessel strikes by between 80% to 90%. While this analysis focused on vessels 65 feet or larger that are required to use public tracking devices, vessels of all sizes can cause fatal injuries to North Atlantic right whales. In fact, a calf died earlier this year from propeller wounds, broken ribs, and a fractured skull from a collision with a 54-foot recreational fishing vessel.

“Vessels are speeding, North Atlantic right whales are dying, and there’s not enough accountability,” said Whitney Webber, campaign director at Oceana. “Oceana’s analysis shows that speeding vessels are rampant throughout North Atlantic right whales’ migration route, all along the East Coast, and in both mandatory and voluntary speed zones. North Atlantic right whales are dying from vessel strikes and NOAA must take action to prevent this. Killing even one is a problem, as scientists estimate that even a single human-caused North Atlantic right whale death a year threatens the species’ chances of recovery. If NOAA is serious about its mandate to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction, speed zones must be designated in the areas where whales currently are, and they must be enforced. Until speed zone rules are mandatory and violators held accountable, North Atlantic right whales will continue to die on NOAA’s watch.”

NOAA uses two different types of management tools to help protect North Atlantic right whales from vessel strikes: permanently designated mandatory Seasonal Management Area (SMA) speed zones in places where whales are expected to be, and reactive voluntary Dynamic Management Area (DMA) speed zones when a whale is spotted. DMAs suggest that vessels avoid the area and have a voluntary speed limit of 10 knots. In contrast, SMAs require vessels to slow down to 10 knots.

Oceana’s analysis of vessel compliance with speed restrictions in both SMAs and DMAs between 2017 and 2020 used data from Global Fishing Watch,* an international nonprofit organization founded by Oceana in partnership with Google and SkyTruth. Oceana analyzed self-reported vessel speeds and location data to track vessel speeds and positions in North Atlantic right whale conservation areas. DMAs were broken up into four regions: Gulf of Maine, Southern New England, Mid-Atlantic, and the Southern States.

Oceana found that:

At best, the highest level of compliance with mandatory 10-knot speed limits was only around two-thirds of vessels in the Off Race Point SMA, near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. At worst, almost 90% of vessels violated the mandatory 10-knot speed limit in the Wilmington, North Carolina, to Brunswick, Georgia, SMA.

The SMAs with the worst compliance were:

  • Wilmington, North Carolina to Brunswick, Georgia (almost 90% non-compliance);
  • Ports of New York/New Jersey (almost 80% non-compliance);
  • Calving and nursery grounds from Georgia to Florida (over 70% non-compliance);
  • The entrance to the Chesapeake Bay (almost 65% non-compliance); and
  • The entrance to the Delaware Bay (over 55% non-compliance).
  • Two-thirds of the vessels that exceeded 10-knot speed limits in both DMAs and SMAs operated under foreign flags.
  • The worst offenders were flagged to the United States, Panama, Marshall Islands, Liberia, Germany, and Singapore.
  • Cargo vessels were the least compliant vessel type in both DMAs and SMAs, representing about 42% of offenders in DMAs and around 50% of offenders in SMAs

As a result of these findings, Oceana is urgently calling on NOAA to immediately revise vessel speed regulations for the U.S. Atlantic to:

  • expand and establish new SMAs;
  • make compliance with DMAs mandatory;
  • expand speed requirements to include vessels under 65 feet in length;
  • require vessels to continuously broadcast public tracking signals, including those under 65 feet in length;
  • improve compliance and enforcement of mandatory speed limits; and
  • narrow the exemption for federal agencies.
    Source: Oceana

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