NOAA study helps protect right whales

03 Jun 2014
The protection of North Atlantic right whales is slowly improving. Photo: NOAA

The protection of North Atlantic right whales is slowly improving. Photo: NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) policy of lower ship speeds in protected areas in the North Atlantic is paying off, protecting critically endangered right whales from ship collisions, according to a new study.

In 2008, a NOAA regulation was instituted that requires vessels 65ft or greater in length to travel at speeds of 10 knots or less in areas seasonally occupied by the North Atlantic right whale, which is highly vulnerable to ship collisions and fishing gear.

The new NOAA-led study looked at the compliance with speed regulations by 8,009 individual vessels that made more than 200,000 trips between November 2008 and August 2013, mostly in areas where the endangered whales are known to travel.

According to the study, virtually all ships received notification of the regulations. The owners or operators of 437 vessels received non-punitive notifications of violations and were reminded of the regulation, or cited after they were observed violating the restrictions. Twenty-six of them received citations and were fined.

“We've shown that notifying the mariners of their responsibilities, along with issuing citations when applicable, results in widespread compliance," said Donna Wieting, director, NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources.

Compliance with the regulation was low at the beginning of the regulatory period, but steadily increased, according to the study. Vessels that received fines or citations also showed improvement later on.

Cargo vessels showed the greatest improvements in compliance, followed by tankers and passenger vessels. According to the paper, the results could likely be applied in other settings where remote monitoring for compliance is feasible.

Today, scientists estimate there are around 450 right whales alive, and NOAA scientists say they have not seen one critically endangered right whale that has been struck by a large vessel in the areas where the ship strike rule applies, since it went into effect.

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