Sun to set on the sunset clause for the right whale Ship Strike Rule?

Right whales do not possess dorsal fins. Thus, their dark bodies are very difficult to spot when they surface, especially for very large ships.

Over the past decade, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has worked tirelessly alongside the US Government to protect the North Atlantic right whale. With fewer than 500 remaining, it is one of the world’s most endangered mammals. 

In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) published a Final Rule to Reduce the Threat of Ship Collisions with North Atlantic Right Whales, otherwise known as the Ship Strike Rule. The Ship Strike Rule requires that all ships 65 feet in length or larger reduce their speed to 10 knots (roughly 11½ mph) while in areas of heightened right whale activity, in an attempt to avoid any collisions with the slow-moving animals.  

North Atlantic right whales spend most of their time at the surface of the water, nursing, mating, sleeping, and feeding. If a whale is struck by a ship, it can lead to major internal injuries and even death. Even a surface wound can easily become infected and spread to the entire system, resulting in the whale’s slow, painful death. 

By traveling at only 10 knots through areas populated by North Atlantic right whales, ships are able to more carefully navigate through the channels to avoid whales.

Even if a ship does strike a whale, at this reduced speed, the injury to the whale is much less severe.

By simply easing up on the gas, mariners can reduce the risk of a lethal ship strike by 80%!

Since its implementation, IFAW has monitored compliance and worked with both mariners and the US Government to promote the Ship Strike Rule.

IFAW also helped develop a free smartphone and tablet app, called WhaleAlert.

Using special acoustic buoys in Massachusetts Bay to listen for right whale calls, the app alerts mariners when whales have been heard and detected, so they can slow down and be on the lookout. WhaleAlert clearly maps areas of seasonal and opportunistic high-density right whale activity, and notifies mariners entering these areas that they should either slow down or avoid the area altogether.

To date, this rule has served the purpose it was intended for–to better protect the North Atlantic right whale from ship strikes–and it has succeeded at one-third the predicted cost. 

However, the story doesn’t end here. When the Ship Strike Rule was passed in 2008, it came with an expiration date, or a North Atlantic right whales “skim feed” - swim along the surface with their mouths open to filter food using their baleen.“sunset clause.”  In essence, without further action, the regulations will expire and the Ship Strike Rule will cease to exist on December 9, 2013.

Fortunately, just last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed a new Rule to remove the sunset clause from the Ship Strike Rule. With the absence of an expiration date, the speed reduction regulations would continue to aid in right whale conservation efforts. But the Rule isn’t final yet; NMFS is accepting public comments on this Proposed Rule until August 5, and we need you to submit a comment supporting this critical decision to eliminate the sunset clause and strengthen the current regulations.

--BA

Click here to be taken to our action page, where you can submit a comment. North Atlantic right whales need all the help they can get!

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Experts

Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Dr. Ralf (Perry) Sonntag, Country Director, Germany
Country Director, Germany
Isabel McCrea, Regional Director, Oceania
Regional Director, Oceania
IFAW Japan Representative
IFAW Japan Representative
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Whales