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December 30, 2013
Whale protection rule extended

The Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) has issued a final rule eliminating the December 9, 2013, expiration date of requirements that large vessels reduce their speed in specified areas to reduce the likelihood of collisions with endangered North American right whales.  The final rule took effect December 6, 2013. 

Initially issued in October 2008, the rule requires that vessels 65 feet and greater in length travel at 10 knots or less at certain times in seasonal management areas (SMA), which are areas of known occurrence of the North American right whale.  The largest SMAs are north and east of Cape Cod, with dates the restrictions are in place varying in the January 1 through July 31 period depending on the specific SMA.  Other SMAs are located along the Eastern seaboard down to the coasts of southern Georgia and northern Florida where the right whale critical habitat is located.  Speed restrictions are mandatory in these areas from November 1 through April 15 in the southernmost SMAs and from November 1 through April 30 in the other areas. 

The rule contains an exception to the speed restriction when navigational safety requires a deviation.

Most endangered large whale

The NMFS notes that the most recent (2009) data indicate that there were 425 individual living North Atlantic right whales.  At this level, with the exception of North Pacific right whales, North Atlantic right whales are the world’s most critically endangered large whale species and one of the world’s most endangered mammals. 

“A population size of several hundred individuals is precariously small for any large whale or large mammal population, particularly given that this population is frequently exposed to anthropogenic threats that result primarily from entanglement in commercial fishing gear and collisions with vessels,” says the NMFS. 

From 1970 to 2011, a total of 91 documented western Northern Atlantic right whale deaths occurred due to injuries suffered from entanglement in commercial fishing gear, vessel strikes, or from unknown causes.  This includes perinatal deaths.  Of the total deaths, 31 resulted from vessel collisions.  Also, studies indicate that female and subadult right whales are more often ship-strike victims than other age and gender classes. Although the reasons for this are not clear, one factor may be that pregnant females and females with nursing calves spend more time at the surface, where they are vulnerable to being struck,  than other gender and age classes, says the NMFS.

Modest recovery

The NMFS adds that in recent years the North Atlantic right whale has exhibited signs of recovery, but the growth rate is lower than growth rates observed in other large whale species.  Studies conducted since 2008 indicate that vessel speed restrictions have been effective in reducing the occurrence or severity of vessels striking right and other large whale species in various geographic locations.

The NMFS has taken steps to reduce the risk of right whales becoming entangled in commercial fishing gear; specifically, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Planis composed of several components, including regulatory restrictions on where and how gear can be set; research into whale populations and whale behavior, as well as fishing gear interactions and modifications; outreach to inform and collaborate with fishermen; and a disentanglement program.

In addition, the NMFS has worked with the International Maritime Organization to modify customary shipping routes to reduce whale strikes.  Furthermore, the NMFS has established a dynamic management area program whereby vessels are requested, but not required, to either travel at 10 knots or less or route around right whale aggregations outside SMAs.

NMFS’s proposal to eliminate the expiration date of the speed restriction rule received 145,879 public comments.  All but 39 of the comments fully supported the proposal.

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