The Biden administration in the US has denied an emergency petition that seeks to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from being struck and killed by shipping vessels in their calving grounds off the southeast coast of the United States.
North Atlantic right whales are among the world’s most at risk marine mammals. They only give birth every three to 10 years, and the population is now down to about 70 reproductive females.
In November, conservation groups, including WDC, filed an emergency rulemaking petition requesting a rule that mirrors a National Marine Fisheries Service (the government agency responsible US marine resources) proposal to set speed limits for vessels 35 feet long and greater, and expand the areas where speed limits apply. The regulation would help prevent incidents like the 2021 boat collision that killed a right whale calf off Florida and likely fatally injured the mother.
The agency has yet to finalise that proposal, with officials stating that they do not have the time and resources to effectively implement the emergency regulations, and that they are working with vessel operators to get voluntary slow-downs. However, previous voluntary efforts have not proved effective.
Right whales birth and nurse their calves in these warm, shallow waters and scientists know of no other calving grounds for them. But the region has become a killing zone. The whales begin giving birth around mid-November, and the season lasts until mid-April. Pregnant females and mothers with nursing calves are especially at risk of vessel strikes because they spend so much time near the water’s surface. The agency’s decision not to take emergency action puts the species’ entire future at risk.
Vessel strikes are one of two main threats to the North Atlantic right whales, along with entanglements in commercial fishing gear. The National Marine Fisheries 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.
Experts recently estimated that only 340 North Atlantic right whales now remain.