A new study released by the non-profit organization Oceana highlights a concerning trend: the vast majority of large ships passing through waters off the US East Coast speed through designated slow zones meant to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Collisions with ships are a leading cause of death for these whales, of which only 340 individuals remain, along with entanglement in fishing gear.
Since 2008, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has imposed mandatory speed limits of ten knots on vessels 20 meters or longer in areas believed to be frequented by right whales and suggested ten-knot limits in areas where they have been sighted. However, Oceana’s data, collected from transponders on these ships, revealed that from November 2020 to July 2022, 84% of them exceeded the mandatory speed limits, and 82% exceeded the suggested speed limits.
Industry insiders have cited concerns about balancing the risk of small fines for speeding in reduced speed zones with the potential for larger fines for late cargo deliveries, highlighting a complicated decision-making process among maritime companies. During the study period, NOAA imposed 46 fines, averaging $15,600 each, on the 9,358 vessels that exceeded speed limits.
The North Atlantic right whale population, once estimated at around 20,000, dwindled due to commercial hunting along the US East Coast in the early 20th century. While hunting bans helped the species rebound, recent years have seen a rise in deaths, especially due to ship strikes and declining birth rates linked to chronic stress-related illnesses in mothers.
Oceana advocates for updated slow zones with stricter speed limits in specific areas and increased penalties for smaller vessels. Protecting these majestic creatures, which can reach lengths of up to 18 meters, is crucial for preserving biodiversity and the balance of marine ecosystems. Time is of the essence in implementing effective measures to save this species from extinction.