NMFS proposes rule to reduce ship strikes 

BAR HARBOR — The National Marine Fisheries Service is proposing changes to vessel speed regulations to reduce the risk posed to endangered North Atlantic right whales. 

Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the leading causes of injury and death to the whales, who scientists estimate number fewer than 350. 

The proposed rule would modify the boundaries of current 10-knot speed restriction areas, apply to most vessels 35 feet and greater in length and create a framework to implement mandatory speed restrictions when whales are known to be present outside active speed restriction areas. 

“Changes to the speed regulations are proposed to reduce vessel strike risk based on a coast-wide collision mortality risk assessment and updated information on right whale distribution, vessel traffic patterns and vessel strike mortality and serious injury events,” according to the proposed rule. “Changes to the existing vessel speed regulation are essential to stabilize the ongoing right whale population decline and prevent the species’ extinction.” 

North Atlantic right whales are vulnerable to being hit by boats due to their proximity to the coast and frequent presence near the surface. Mother whales and calves are at heightened risk because they often nurse and rest nearshore at or near the surface. Calving grounds are located off the Southeastern U.S. from South Carolina to Florida. 

Environmental groups hailed the proposed rule. 

“We are glad that NOAA is finally taking action to protect both whales and boaters. Just like slowing down in a school zone, speed zones on the water give boaters and the whales a chance to react and move out of harm’s way,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s North American office. “If you think hitting a deer with a car is dangerous, imagine striking a 40-ton whale with a fiberglass boat.” 

Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Defenders of Wildlife, Conservation Law Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal petition in August 2020 asking the Fisheries Service to expand the areas and times when its existing 10-knot vessel speed limit rule applies to make all voluntary vessel speed restrictions mandatory and to apply the rule to small vessels (shorter than 65 feet) as well as large ones to avoid collisions that kill and injure right whales. 

The 2020 petition was in response to the death of three right whales, including a mother and calf pair, from collisions with small vessels in less than a year.  

Anyone wishing to submit public comment on the proposed rule may do so by going to www.regulations.gov and click the “Comment” icon, complete the required fields and enter or attach your comments.  

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