The right rule for right whales
As they migrate up and down the East Coast of the United States each year, endangered North Atlantic right whales occasionally swim into harm’s way as large ships moving in and out of major shipping ports crisscross critical right whale habitat.
Collisions with high speed vessels remain the most frequent cause of death for this slow swimming species.
Deemed the “right” whale to hunt by generations of Yankee whalers fewer than 500 North Atlantic right whales remain. Half a decade ago, IFAW and others worked tirelessly with leaders in the Bush Administration, including the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, to protect these critically endangered whales.
In 2008 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) published a Final Rule to Reduce the Threat of Ship Collisions with North Atlantic Right Whales, commonly referred to as the Ship Strike Rule.
Based on state of the art data collection showing when and where these gentle giants are present, the rule requires ships 65 feet in length or larger slow to 10 knots when traversing right whale hotspots. Temporary seasonal and sighting specific area designations encourage mariners to navigate more carefully through these areas without running over whales.
By slowing down, mariners reduce the risk of a lethal ship strike by 80 percent. In the event a collision does occur, injuries to whales from vessels moving at 10 knots or less have proven much less severe.
In a leviathan effort to assist mariners with compliance, IFAW worked with scientists at the Stellwagen Bank Marine National Marine Sanctuary and other partners to produce ‘Whale Alert’, a free mobile app that provides mariners and others real-time information on the presence of right whales.
‘Whale Alert’ puts heads-up displays, easy-to-read charts and related regulatory information in the hands of mariners, promoting easier compliance, reduced risk of fines and penalties and providing improved protection for whales and people.
But swift action is needed to continue this positive trend.
When the Ship Strike Rule was passed in 2008, it came with what’s known as a “sunset clause” – a rapidly coming upon us expiration date -- of December 9, 2013.
Just last year, IFAW commissioned a nationwide survey (see the embedded PDF below) prepared by lead Obama pollster Joel Benenson showing overwhelming support for whale protection from the American public right, left and center.
This past August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed the elimination of this “sunset clause” from the Ship Strike Rule so there would be no expiration date on the reasonable regulation that requires large ships slow down when they are near right whales.
More than 30,000 IFAW supporters from sea to shining sea submitted comments to NOAA, in favor of eliminating the sunset clause and extending the common sense Ship Strike Rule.
With such strong public support and evidence of success, it is surprising that NOAA has not yet been allowed to release a final decision on this matter. With the existing rule set to expire in two weeks, time is running out for the Obama Administration to do the right thing for the right whales.
Unfortunately, barring prompt action to change course, this Administration is on track to kill a proven whale protection measure that even the Bush-Cheney Administration supported.
IFAW will not stand idly by and watch the sun set on the Ship Strike Rule, or the North Atlantic right whales.
We are working with Congress, the Administration, and NOAA to ensure the clock doesn’t run out on this good rule.
In the end it falls on the shoulders of President Obama to do the right thing and protect these whales in perpetuity; hopefully he will not let the American public or the right whales down.