BOSTON – Just as the first North Atlantic right whales are spotted making their seasonal migration from New England waters to their calving grounds off Florida and Georgia, these critically endangered animals are finally getting protection Tuesday from fast moving ships that accidentally kill or injure the majestic animals along the East Coast.
On Dec. 9, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will mandate that ships slow down to 10 knots within 20 miles of East Coast ports during the season when right whales are migrating to and from the calving grounds in the southeast U.S. With fewer than 400 remaining, North Atlantic right whales are considered among the most endangered large whale species in the world. Since 2001, 12 right whales have been struck and killed by vessels along the Atlantic coast. Right whales are particularly vulnerable to vessel strikes as they are slow swimming and spend much time near the water’s surface. This regulation will impose seasonal speed restrictions throughout the right whale’s range from the Gulf of Maine to Florida.
For the last 10 years, the New England Aquarium’s North Atlantic right whale team and other protection groups have been working with the federal government to pass this mandatory speed limit despite concerns from the shipping industry and resistance from the Bush administration.
“At long last, the ocean is going to be a little bit safer for right whales - cause for celebration amongst the many of us who have worked for the past decade to see this rule enacted,” said Amy Knowlton of the Aquarium’s right whale research team.
“The passage of the ship strike reduction rule is the culmination of years of dedicated work by a variety of groups – scientists, policy experts, conservationists, state and federal governments, and the shipping industry itself and is based on solid scientific data,” Knowlton said.
Researchers have found that the probability of right whales dying after being struck drops from over 80% when a vessel is traveling at 15 knots or more to just above 20% when a vessel is traveling at 10 knots or less. Average vessel speeds in critical right whale habitats have been around 15 knots.
“We’re really excited about this,” said Kerry Lagueux, an associate scientist for the Aquarium’s research department and a geographer who uses mapping technology to help identify potential conflicts between right whales, ships, and fishing gear entanglements.
Aquarium researchers are using Automatic Identification System technology, a transmitter system that sends data from vessels to a receiver they carry on their survey plane. This system has enabled researchers in the Southeast to collect data on ship speeds, vessel types, and port destinations in order to evaluate how vessels have responded to right whale information in the past. It will now be used to monitor their actions in response to this new regulation.
Right whales’ primary calving grounds are in and the nearshore waters of Georgia and northern Florida from Dec. to March each year. The first sighting of a mother and calf this year was earlier – in late November about six miles off Hilton Head Island, S.C. Other pairs were sighted last week in Georgia and Florida.
New England Aquarium and participating Right Whale Consortium scientists have created the world’s most extensive data base of all of known right whales. Accessible to the public via the Aquarium website, the catalog of over 45,000 photographed sightings allows scientists to identify whales by their callosities – or roughened skin patches on top of their head and to also monitor the level of vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements. Scientists can then track their whereabouts, births, death and other information.
The catalog includes photos from three aerial survey teams which sweep calving grounds in coastal waters along Florida and Georgia from December to March. The Aquarium scientists work closely with NOAA, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and Georgia and Florida state environmental officials to protect and monitor whales along the Southeast coast.
In August and September, Aquarium scientists conduct vessel surveys in the feeding and nursing area of Canada’s Bay of Fundy to take photos and collect skin samples from the whales which give them genetic identification such as genotype, sex, potential paternity, and genetic ability to respond to disease.
With changes made to shipping lanes in Canada, Aquarium scientists are also seeing progress in protecting whales. This new vessel strike rule takes it one step further.
“To think that right whales will be able to migrate along the coast and avoid the now slow moving, oncoming ships that they come across routinely gives me tremendous hope that we are one step closer to giving this species a chance of avoiding extinction,” Knowlton said.
CONTACT: Tony LaCasse 617-973-5213 (office)