Slow down to give these endangered whales a chance

Slow down to give these endangered whales a chance
© Getty Images

When I see cars speeding in my neighborhood, it makes my blood boil. I’ve got kids here. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen that often because speeding is against the law and the threat of a fine tends to keep most people in check.

But what if drivers knew they wouldn’t be pulled over for speeding? Or if there were no fines at all? What if those speed limits that keep your children safe were simply suggestions? Most of us would worry far more about our children’s safety. More cars would likely speed more often and, at some point, avoidable tragedies would strike. 

Well, tragedy is striking one of the most endangered species of large whales in the world, right in our backyard. And this tragedy could be avoided but is ongoing because of weak and poorly enforced rules. 

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North Atlantic right whales used to be abundant off the East Coast of North America. Whaling devastated their numbers but after that was banned, the right whales began slowly building back their population. Today, new threats are once again pushing these iconic animals towards extinction. Only about 360 remains

Scientists say that to avoid extinction, less than one North Atlantic right whale can die each year. In the last four years, at least 34 whales have died. While thick ropes attached to fishing gear are entangling and killing these whales, so too are speeding ships, and it’s this threat that Oceana, where I am a campaign director, examined in a recent report

Vessel strikes can cause blunt force trauma, and propellers can cut deep, deadly lacerations into the whale’s flesh. When ships slow down, the risk of a boat killing a whale is dramatically reduced by as much as 90 percent.  

Oceana looked at areas that had been set up to protect North Atlantic right whales from speeding vessels. Some of these areas are determined ahead of time and established in places where North Atlantic right whales are expected to gather at certain times of the year. The speed limits in these zones are mandatory. Others are established in areas when right whales are spotted. The speed restrictions in these zones are simply voluntary. Using a mapping platform that can track ship movement and speed, Oceana tracked ship speeds in these slow zones. 

In both types of protected areas, too many ships were flouting the rules and traveling at excessive speed. In one of the mandatory speed zones off the coast of North Carolina and Georgia, 90 percent of the vessels violated the 10-knot (11.5 MPH) speed limit. Nearly 85 percent of all vessels in voluntary zones failed to cooperate with the suggested speed limit. Over the four-year period we analyzed, we found more than 21,000 incidents of vessels ignoring voluntary and mandatory speed limits.

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And so, speeding vessels are killing whales. In January 2020, a 27-year old North Atlantic right whale named Derecha was seen off the coast of Georgia with her fourth calf, which was badly injured with lacerations to its head and mouth. Responders were able to attempt treating the cuts with antibiotics, but the calf has not been seen since and is presumed dead. Later that year in June, the season’s first calf was found floating dead near New Jersey with lacerations from propellers and a back injury presumably from a rudder strike. In February this year, a calf born to a North Atlantic right whale named Infinity — her first — was found dead on a Florida beach, struck by a 54-foot recreational fishing boat going 21 knots, or about 24 MPH. The calf and new mother had only a few weeks together. Infinity herself was spotted later with wounds on her side consistent with a vessel strike. 

These whales need better protection. Not only should all speed limits be made mandatory, but they should also be effectively enforced. These limits should also apply to more vessels: smaller, but just-as-dangerous boats are exempt and so are federal and military ships. These loopholes must be closed to give these special whales a fighting chance of recovery. We all want the safest possible environment for our children to grow in, and that’s why we advocate for safer traffic rules in our neighborhoods. Whales cannot advocate for themselves, so we must speak for them. Oceana’s investigation confirmed that vessels are traveling too fast, and whales are being killed. It’s time to make the ships slow down to save the North Atlantic right whale. 

Whitney Webber is a campaign director at Oceana. In this role, she leads Oceana’s campaigns to save the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale from extinction, ban the U.S. shark fin trade, and defend the nation’s key fisheries law from attacks.