Ship Speed Rule: Right Whales Win!

Today, the right whale community breathes a sigh of relief and rejoices in a wonderful gift: the elimination of the "sunset clause" in the ship speed reduction rule. Conservationists, scientists and organizations pulled together this year to rally support to encourage the federal government to remove this expiration date from the rule. The fact that it was accomplished is major reason to celebrate!

Photo: New England Aquarium

What is this ship speed reduction rule and why are we so excited by its continuation? Because right whales spend time at the surface and are slow moving, they are no strangers to vessel collisions, particularly in the southeast U.S. where mothers birth and nurse their newborn calves. The faster a ship travels, the more likely they are to strike and kill a right whale. Implemented in 2008, the crux of this rule requires vessels of 65+ ft in length to slow down to at least 10 knots in designated areas on the East Coast at certain times of the year when right whales are most likely to be present. Models predicted that this rule would reduce the probability of fatal ship strikes of right whales by a whopping 80-90%! And it's proven to have made a difference: "no right whale ship strike deaths have occurred in Seasonal Management Areas since the rule went into place" (from NOAA). However, these measures were only temporary and set to expire in December 2013. It was scary to think that this rule could cease to exist— with a current estimated population of only 510 individuals, removal of these speed restrictions would have been taking several steps backwards. Fortunately, the rule now exists in perpetuity!!

Photo: New England Aquarium

Many people have worked tirelessly to ensure that this rule continues to exist, but we must also remember that (to quote Amy Knowlton) "the shipping industry is to be commended for complying with this rule that has clearly made a difference for the North Atlantic right whale."

The final rule is available here!