Vessels off the East Coast of the US must slow down more often to help save a vanishing species of whale from extinction, the federal government said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made the announcement via proposed rules designed to prevent ships colliding with North Atlantic right whales.
Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the two biggest threats to the giant animals, which number less than 340 and are falling in population.
Efforts to save the whales have long focused on fishing gear, especially that used by East Coast lobster fishermen.
The proposed vessel speed rules signal that the government wants the shipping industry to take more responsibility.
“Changes to the existing vessel speed regulation are essential to stabilise the ongoing right whale population decline and prevent the species’ extinction,” say the proposed rules, which are due to be published in the federal register.
The new rules would expand seasonal slow zones off the East Coast that require mariners to slow down to 10 knots (19km per hour).
They would also require more vessels to comply with the rules by expanding the size classes that must slow down.
The rules also state that the NOAA would create a framework to implement mandatory speed restrictions when whales are known to be present outside the seasonal slow zones.
Federal authorities spent a few years reviewing the speed regulations used to protect the whales. The shipping rules have long focused on a patchwork of slow zones that require mariners to slow down for whales. Some of the zones are mandatory while others are voluntary.
Environmental groups have made the case that many boats do not comply with the speed restrictions and that the rules need to be tighter.
Environmental organization Oceana released a report in 2021 that said non-compliance was as high as nearly 90% in voluntary zones and was also dangerously low in the mandatory ones.
“The government is proposing a significant improvement in protections for North Atlantic right whales today, which are constantly at risk from speeding vessels,” said Gib Brogan, a campaign director at Oceana. “It’s no secret that speeding vessels are rampant throughout North Atlantic right whales’ migration route, all along the East Coast.”
Many members of the shipping industry were aware the new speed rules were on the way.
The London-based International Chamber of Shipping, which represents more than 80% of the world merchant fleet, has been working with the International Maritime Organisation and other stakeholders to better protect the right whales, said Chris Waddington, the chamber’s technical director.
The chamber’s members are used to complying with speed limits in whale zones, he said.
“The shipping industry takes the protection of whales seriously and has undertaken measures to safeguard them, from engaging stakeholders to reducing speed and rerouting,” Mr Waddington said. “There is always more that can be done, and that is why we are working with the IMO and conservationists on reviewing maritime guidelines.”