Petition calls for speed regulations to save right whales in North Atlantic

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Conservation groups are urging the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service to introduce ship speed regulations to save the last right whales in the North Atlantic.

Conservation groups that filed an emergency petition regarding boat speeds this month included the Center for Biological Diversity, the Conservation Law Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

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“We urge the agency to implement its proposal to expand protections in the Southeast immediately, including applying the rule to vessels 35 feet and over,” said Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity’s ocean program.

A species in decline

North Atlantic right whale populations are on the brink. With only 340 of them remaining, fewer than 70 of the whales are reproductively active females, which could help the population recover.

In the early 20th century, whalers hunted North Atlantic right whales to extinction. Although whaling is no longer legal, human interactions – such as boat hits and fishing nets – continue to endanger whales and prevent populations from recovering.

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According to the emergency petition, the North Atlantic right whale population has declined by 30% in just the last decade.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service declined to comment but provided resources compiled by the organization and available on its website.

Since 1999, six North Atlantic right whales have been found dead or sighted offshore with serious injuries in Georgia. The whales are particularly vulnerable to boat attacks along the southeastern coast because they often stay near shore and swim near the surface in their calving grounds, where they give birth in late autumn.

Extending the rules to save whales

The conservation groups’ emergency request is conditional on NOAA already sorting out a new proposed regulation. According to NOAA, the proposed changes would expand the geographic scope of the speed limit as well as the timing of seasonal speed limits along the East Coast. The rule change would also extend mandatory speed limits of 10 knots or less to most vessels between 35ft and 65ft.

“All available evidence suggests that the agency must act quickly and fast-moving vessels simply must not be allowed to kill mother right whales and their babies during calving season, or it could very well spell extinction for the species,” he said monsell

According to Monsell, the emergency permit could be issued immediately. The authority is authorized to take measures under the Administrative Procedures Act, the Species Protection Act and the Marine Mammals Protection Act. The final steps would be for NOAA to post a “interim final emergency ruling” in the Federal Register.

No speed zone

Many Georgians may not know that the state has whales off its shores in late autumn and winter.

Courtney Reich, coastal director of the Georgia Conservancy, said it’s only in the last few decades that researchers have discovered that whales’ breeding and calving grounds lie off the coast of Georgia, and since they don’t come out of the water, they’re easy to miss.

Because of this, whale conservation efforts have been focused in the Northeast, said Nancy Daves of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light.

The work on the speed regulations is a new effort to make a tangible impact on whale numbers after 20 years of “conservation wack-a-mole” – hunting down threats ranging from large ship speed limits in the early 2000s to the 1990s to fishing line entanglements emerging to climate change changing whale habits and habitats.

Oceans Connect, a non-profit organization aiming to advance the understanding and protection of the Georgian Continental Shelf and the Blake Plateau, is one of several local organizations working together to protect North Atlantic right whales. CEO Simona Perry said she is working to collaborate with other Georgian groups, as well as the wider community — including fishermen, boaters, decision-makers, scientists and more — to create collaboration and coordination for the state’s North Atlantic right whale protection and to advocate for speed is the rule just one way the groups are working together on the conservation issue.

“The speed rules are not new,” said Reich. They have already been implemented and enforced for larger vessels and this change would simply streamline what boats need to comply with. When the rules were first introduced, she said there had been a dramatic drop in boat strikes and that expanding the rule will help reduce deaths and injuries.

“We want boaters to feel like champions for the whale,” Perry said. Historically, fishermen, divers and other sea creatures have been strong partners, and boaters are no exception.

Marisa Mecke is an environmental journalist. She can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at (912) 328-4411.

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