A coalition of environmental groups is calling on the U.S. government to adopt emergency rules to protect an endangered whale species from deadly collisions with large ships.
The groups filed their petition on September 28 with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a US federal agency, to protect the North Atlantic right whale. This giant whale, which numbers fewer than 340 individuals, has experienced a sharp decline in recent years.
According to NOAA, ship strikes pose one of the most serious threats to the whale’s survival. The groups cited a proposed agency rule aimed at preventing ship strikes by requiring more ships to slow down to avoid hitting whales.
NOAA has yet to issue a final rule on ship speeds, although it proposed new rules more than a year ago, environmental groups reminded.
The groups say it is critically important to have new rules in place before the upcoming calving season, during which whales migrate hundreds of miles between the waters of New England and Canada and their areas. calving off the coast of Florida and Georgia.
“A single ship strike would bring these whales closer to extinction, but speed limits can help prevent this. Federal authorities cannot stand idly by while right whales are in danger,” said Kristen Monsell, the oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that filed the petition.
NOAA plans to announce final action on the proposed rule this year, said Katie Wagner, an agency spokeswoman. This could come in the middle of the calving season and include a later date for the regulations to come into force.
The agency is aware of the petition but does not comment on litigation matters, Wagner added. The agency plans to expand “slow zones” off the East Coast and require more ships to comply with these rules.
Last year, NOAA rejected a request from environmentalists to immediately implement the new rules. The agency said at the time, through public documents, that it was focused on “substantial, long-term measures to reduce the risk of vessel strikes.” NOAA received more than 90,000 comments on the proposed rule and is using them to inform its final action, Ms. Wagner said.
Right whales were once abundant off the East Coast, but were decimated during the era of commercial whaling. They have been protected by the Endangered Species Act for several decades. Whales are also vulnerable to incidental capture in commercial fishing gear, and proposed new restrictions to prevent such capture have been the subject of a lengthy legal battle between the U.S. government and fishermen.