Endangered Right Whales Return to Florida While Expanded Slow Zones are Considered

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As endangered right whales return to Florida waters, proposed federal slow-speed zones for ships off Florida and elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean continue to stir controversy.

NOAA and whale advocates said the slow zones reduce the risk of ships killing the remaining few hundred whales and should be expanded. Maritime trade advocates countered that the slowdown could hurt the world’s just-in-time delivery economics, as many ship captains are under pressure to get to port as quickly as possible.

North Atlantic right whale mother and calf, with callus patterns visible on both.  Image taken under MMPA permission #17355.  The species is on the brink of extinction, with only about 350 North Atlantic right whales remaining.  (Photo: Christin Khan,NEFSC/NOAA, Christin Khan,NEFSC/NOAA)

Fewer than 350 North American right whales remain. There’s been some good news recently: four live calves born this calving season, but that doesn’t stop fears that the species is still at risk of extinction.

“North Atlantic right whales are dying faster than they can reproduce, largely due to human causes,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on its website.

On January 31, 2020, a North Atlantic right whale was sighted in Port Canaveral.  Image of Daniel Colmenares taken during research by scientists at the Blue World Research Institute under NOAA Research Permit #15488-02.

Right whales have been experiencing what NOAA calls a unusual mortality event since 2017. That resulted in more than one in five people in the population being sick, injured or dead, the agency said. The researchers estimated that fewer than 70 reproductively active females remain and they produce fewer pups each year, threatening the species’ recovery prospects.

Humans remain the leading killer of right whales, federal biologists said, even though the whales have not been commercially hunted for more than 80 years. The main threats to whales are collisions with ships or boats and entanglement in fishing gear.

Births of endangered right whales have ranged from zero to 39 since 2007.

So, as with manatees, NOAA said slowing boats for right whales is imperative to saving one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals. The slowdown would give the captains and the whales enough time to stay clear of each other. But also, as with slow manatee areas, going slow drives crazy captains whose livelihoods depend on getting to their destinations on time.

“I think the boat speed rule is going to be huge,” said Julie Albert, coordinator of the nonprofit Marine Resources Council’s right whale conservation program. “We still don’t know what the final decision will be.”

NOAA wants to expand where boats must slow down for right whales and the size of the boat that must obey the zones.

NOAA proposed extend slow zone limits and reduce the size of vessels that must comply with current vessel speed limits along the East Coast. Currently, only vessels 65 feet or larger are affected by the Right whale speed zones under NOAA rules. But if approved by NOAA, most vessels 35 feet or longer would have to sail 10 knots or less (about 11.5 mph) within proposed seasonal speed zones to reduce the risk of fatal collisions. with right whales.

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