For Immediate Release, December 6, 2013

Contact: Brett Hartl, (202) 817-8121

Ship Speed Limits to Protect Endangered Atlantic Right Whales Made Permanent

WASHINGTON— The National Marine Fisheries Service today finalized a rule that will make permanent existing speed limits for large ships along the U.S. East Coast to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. The current speed limit rule, which requires ships 65 feet long and longer to slow to 10 knots (about 11 miles per hour) in areas and at times when right whales are present, was set to expire next Monday. The Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society of the United States, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and Defenders of Wildlife petitioned the Fisheries Service in June 2012 to make the ship speed limit rule permanent.

“This is really great news for Atlantic right whales and will help put this magnificent species on the road to recovery,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center. “Speed limits for large ships are a simple and effective way to avoid deadly collisions that have been a significant threat to these whales’ survival.”  

Atlantic right whales have been protected as an endangered species for more than 40 years, with a global population of fewer than 500 individuals. The whales’ coastal feeding, breeding and nursing grounds along the East Coast coincide with some of the nation’s busiest shipping ports.

Before the first speed limits were implemented in 2008, one or two right whales annually were struck and killed or very seriously injured. An April 2013 scientific report found that speed limits have reduced the number of vessel-related right whale deaths by 80 percent to 90 percent. Unfortunately, in 2008, top officials in the Bush administration demanded the inclusion of a “sunset” provision in the original rule, which threatened to undo the progress made in the past five years to protect right whales.

“The Obama administration made the right decision to allow science to guide the decision on how to protect right whales,” said Hartl. “This is an important step, but the science is clear that much more needs to be done to protect this critically endangered species, as well as other endangered whales that are killed by ship strikes along the eastern seaboard.”

The 2013 agency review of the rule found that the areas where speed limits are required should be extended, especially in Northeast, including along Jeffrey’s Ledge and Jordan Basin, where right whales are known to congregate in the fall and winter. Because vessels shorter than 65 feet also kill whales, speed limits should be required for other types of smaller vessels. Slowing ships reduces vessel collisions with other protected species, including blue, humpback, fin and minke whales. Slower ships also produce less underwater noise pollution and air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions.

Background on Right Whales
North Atlantic right whales were decimated by commercial whaling in past centuries, and, despite being protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1970, have not recovered. The whales, reaching 55 feet in length, migrate from calving grounds off the southeastern United States to feeding grounds off the northeastern United States and Canada.

Adult female right whales reproduce slowly, giving birth to one calf every four years and not reaching reproductive maturity until age 8. The primary threats to imperiled right whales are ship strikes, entanglement in commercial fishing gear, habitat degradation, rising noise levels, global warming, ocean acidification and pollution.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 625,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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