Mandatory speed limits proposed for Gulf of Maine to protect North Atlantic right whale
There are an estimated 356 North Atlantic right whales in existence, according to the latest numbers released Monday from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. (Moira Brown | New England Aquarium)
There are an estimated 356 North Atlantic right whales in existence, according to the latest numbers released Monday from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. Along with fishing gear entanglements, vessel strikes are a leading cause of death and current regulations are not doing enough to stop boats from speeding, according to a report released this month from ocean conservation group Oceana, putting the endangered population at continued risk.
Fishing gear entanglements currently account for 82 percent of documented right whale mortalities and vessel strikes cause the other 18 percent. In the past six years, there have been 16 documented vessel strikes with right whales in the U.S. and Canada that led to death, serious injury, or sublethal injuries.
“Sixteen doesn’t sound that high, but when you compare it back to the fact that there’s only 340 whales in the entire population, it is very high,” said Julia Singer, a marine scientist for Oceana.
While there are ongoing efforts to regulate and adapt fishing gear, Singer said, vessel strikes can be more quickly prevented with updated policy.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sets slow speed zones in order to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, however the current regulations – which leave some zones up to voluntary compliance – are not enough to deter vessel strikes, the Oceana report concludes. Oceana recommends making all slow zones mandatory, enhancing enforcement and modifying zones based on the latest migration and behavioral data available for the species.
Speeding is consistently high
Zones designated by NOAA as Seasonal Management Areas (SMAs) have mandatory speed limits, which go into effect at the same time each year because of known migration and feeding patterns. In other slow zones, the speed limit is voluntary and goes into effect only when at least three North Atlantic right whales are spotted in the region.
Right now, only the voluntary zones are in effect in the Gulf of Maine, which spans the southern tip of Nova Scotia to Cape Cod.
More than half of large vessels in the Gulf of Maine did not comply with NOAA’s voluntary slow speed zones during 2021 and 2022. Within these zones, which last for 15 days from the sighting and for 15 nautical miles around the area of detection, vessels 65 feet or longer are asked to avoid the area or slow down to 10 knots (about 11.5 miles per hour).
During the November 2020 to July 2021 season, about 64 percent of vessels in the Gulf of Maine surpassed this speed. The following year’s season, about 65.2 percent of vessels sped. The highest recorded speeds for each season were 37.4 knots (43 mph) and 39.6 knots (45.6 mph), respectively.
For example, one 500-foot tanker, carrying chemicals and oil, sped through 14 slow speed zones while traveling along the East Coast over the course of 2021 and 2022. During the tanker’s trips, it surpassed the suggested speed limit on 40 different days, including two days east of Portland, Maine.
Speeding in suggested slow zones occurs all along the East Coast.
Oceana found that 82 percent of boats sped through voluntary slow zones from November 2020 through July 2022. Speeding also occurred in mandatory slow zones, with 84 percent of boats speeding through those zones during the same period.
Regulations have not changed
The North Atlantic right whale, which got its name from being the “right” whales to hunt because they floated when killed, has been listed as endangered since 1970. The species had been rebounding before 2017 but since then has been experiencing what is called an unusual mortality event.
The current speed regulations are not sufficient to protect them from extinction, Singer said. The report showed that speeding events for 2021-2022 were comparable to those Oceana tracked for 2017-2020.
“It’s pretty expected for us,” Singer said, “because there hasn’t been any change in regulations.”
Speeding regulations have essentially not changed since 2008, when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued the “Vessel Speed Rule,” which created the two types of zones – SMAs and the voluntary slow zones, called Dynamic Management Areas (DMAs) – to protect the whales from boat strikes. In 2020, it also added a “Right Whale Slow Zone,” another voluntary zone that is triggered by acoustic detections, technology that had not been widely available when the 2008 rule went into effect.
At the same time, efforts by the NMFS to deter fishing gear entanglements, the other leading human-related cause of death among right whales, have been challenged in court by the Maine lobster industry.
On Monday, Singer represented Oceana at an annual meeting of researchers and industry leaders in Nova Scotia to discuss a potential solution to the entanglement issue called on-demand, or “ropeless,” gear, which uses less rope in the water than traditional designs.
While promising, this technology is still in the development phase, Singer said.
Making slow zones mandatory in Maine
In 2022, the NMFS proposed updates to the Vessel Speed Rule and received over 90,000 public comments from conservation groups, commercial and recreational fishing communities, and others. It is expected to release the final rule by the end of this year.
Oceana strongly supports this proposal, which incorporates many of the group’s recommendations based on its 2017-2020 analysis, said Oceana campaign director Gib Brogan.
For example, the updated rule would expand regulations to include smaller vessels 35 feet or longer and update slow zones to accurately reflect current whale habitats, which have changed since the initial 2008 rule. It would also make voluntary slow zones mandatory.
“For Maine, the protection for whales has very much fallen into the voluntary speedzone category,” Brogan said, explaining that there aren’t any mandatory slow zones in the Gulf of Maine.
Oceana specifically recommended in its latest report to add the Gulf of Maine as one of the mandatory slow zones. There are currently 10, located from Massachusetts to Florida.
Singer said the Gulf of Maine has emerged as an important habitat for North Atlantic right whales, both because of high numbers of sightings in recent years and congregation patterns.
“These whales are not in giant, collective groups traveling the ocean together,” Singer said, adding that they follow food sources. “So, anytime that we see areas where these whales are congregating together we know it’s a very important feeding habitat.”
Because Maine’s slow zones are voluntary, there is also no enforcement mechanism. Only speeding in mandatory zones can be punished, typically with fines by the NOAA Office of Law enforcement or United States Coast Guard.
However, enforcement is low. As of March 2023, the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement only issued fines in 46 cases for 2021 and 2022, but Oceana found thousands of vessels speeding in its analysis of that time frame.
The updated population estimates released by the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium on Monday suggest that the downward trajectory for the species could be slowing. It recalculated its previous 2021 estimate of 340 to 365, because of 18 whales born that year that were only recently cataloged.
“While certainly more encouraging than a continued decline, the ‘flattening’ of the population estimate indicates that human activities are killing as many whales as are being born into the population, creating an untenable burden on the species,” said Heather Pettis, a research scientist in the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium and the executive administrator of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the NMFS is required to reduce mortality to the species’ potential biological removal, defined as “the maximum number of animals, not including natural mortalities, that may be removed from a marine mammal stock while allowing that stock to reach or maintain its optimum sustainable population.” For right whales, the PBR is 0.7 whales per year, meaning that if even one right whale continues to be killed per year, the species won’t recover.
No year in the past decade has been below that bar, so Brogan acknowledged that that is a high standard to work toward.
“But, scientists also tell us that we have not reached a point of a return for this species,” Brogan said. “It is not a lost cause.”
This story was originally published by Maine Morning Star, which like the New Hampshire Bulletin is part of the nonprofit States Newsroom, a national network of news bureaus supported by grants and donors.
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