The National Marine Fisheries Service denied an emergency petition to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from being struck by vessels off the coast of the southeast United States.
n November 2022 conservation groups filed an emergency rulemaking petition requesting a rule that mirrors a Fisheries Service proposal to set speed limits for vessels 35 feet long and greater and expand the areas where speed limits apply.
The agency has yet to finalize that proposal, and the emergency rule would have helped prevent incidents like the 2021 boat collision that killed a right whale calf off Florida and likely fatally injured its mother.
I’m outraged that the Biden administration won’t shield these incredibly endangered whales from lethal ship strikes
said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
As an explanation for today’s denial, the Service said it does not have the time and resources to effectively implement the emergency regulations. Agency officials assert that they are working with vessel operators to get voluntary slow-downs, but voluntary efforts have not proved effective in the past.
The calving grounds have become killing grounds. NOAA has dragged its feet on updating the vessel speed rule for over a decade; right whale mothers and calves have paid for this delay with their lives. The agency’s decision not to take emergency action to protect mothers and calves puts the species’ entire future at risk
added Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife.
Vessel strikes are one of two primary threats to the species’ existence, along with entanglements in commercial fishing gear. The Service’s current rule requires vessels 65 feet in length and greater to slow to 10 knots or less to protect right whales in certain areas at certain times. The agency has noted that a rule expansion is essential to preventing the whale’s extinction.
This decision comes just weeks after Congress enacted a rider that gives the Service until 2028 to issue a new rule to reduce right whale entanglements in lobster gear, despite a court decision holding that its current regulations fail to comply with the law.
On the other hand, IMO recently adopted a U.S. proposal to increase protections for endangered blue, fin, and humpback whales off the California coast. The proposal takes effect this summer and expands areas where vessels should avoid giving whales more space, and extends vessel traffic lanes west of, in, and around NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council’s Marine Shipping Working Group originally recommended the modifications in 2015. NOAA partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard to submit the proposal to the IMO in 2022.
A 13-nautical-mile extension of vessel traffic lanes, known as the “traffic separation scheme,” will result in vessels lining up for port entry farther west and away from the continental shelf, in deeper waters where there are lower concentrations of whales.
In a similar move, vessels entering and leaving Puget Sound were asked to temporarily slow down to reduce underwater noise. Washington state launched this strategy from British Columbia on a trial basis, to help the Pacific Northwest’s critically endangered killer whales.
The voluntary slowdown for container ships, tankers, freighters, cruise ships, and car carriers ran from October 24 to December 22. The slowdown area covered the shipping lanes from Admiralty Inlet by Port Townsend south to Kingston and Mukilteo.