Petition Threatens Right Whale Conservation
Five years after it was first imposed by the Bush-Cheney administration, one of the most effective rules protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales migrating along the East Coast of the United States from fatal ship strikes may now be in jeopardy. The Obama Administration has begun consideration of petition to exclude waters – from New York City to Jacksonville, Florida – from the Ship Strike Rule requiring large vessels to slow to 10 knots in critical habitat areas.
Initiated by a minority of shipping interests, the petition seeks to exclude federally-maintained dredged channels and pilot boarding areas (and the immediately adjacent waters) from select ports along the eastern seaboard.
Implemented in 2008 and renewed in December, 2013, the Ship Strike Rule restricts vessel speeds to 10 knots or less in areas of heightened right whale activity, and is hailed as an important development in the ongoing efforts to protect the critically endangered species. However, the petition claims that these speed restrictions constitute a safety issue for vessels coming into port; that large vessels lose steerage at low speed, and that navigational safety is at risk.
The original rule already includes an exemption, or deviation clause, which states that vessels may operate at a speed greater than 10 knots if necessary to maintain a safe operational speed in an area where conditions severely restrict vessel manoeuvrability.
“The safety of mariners is of utmost importance,” said Margaret Cooney, IFAW Campaigns Officer. Existing provisions in the rule reflect that priority.”
“At best, the blanket exemptions sought in this petition are unnecessary. At worst, they are an attempt to harpoon an effective whale protection measure even the Bush-Cheney Administration supported. Rejecting this position will retain critical protections for right whales and maintain appropriate exemptions for mariners. Approving it could put the right whale on a high-speed course to extinction.”
Records show that no right whales are known to have been killed by vessels within 40 nautical miles of management areas with active speed restrictions since the rule has been in operation.
To make it easier for mariners to comply with common sense regulations, IFAW has collaborated with NOAA, nationally-recognized researchers and the maritime industry. In 2012, IFAW with Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and other partners developed Whale Alert, a real-time app for iPads and iPhones with pop-up alerts to inform captains when they’ve entered a speed restricted area or location with recently sighted right whales.
"This rule works,” added Cooney. “By reducing speeds to 10 knots near right whales, mariners can reduce the risk of a lethal ship strike by 80%. The same sorts of speed limits have been put in place on our roads to reduce the risk of death from pedestrian collision with cars; why should we not do the same to protect these critically endangered whales?"
# # #
About IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare)
Founded in 1969, IFAW saves animals in crisis around the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW rescues individual animals, works to prevent cruelty to animals, and advocates for the protection of wildlife and habitats. For more information, visit www.ifaw.org. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.