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Help Endangered Whales: Slow Down in Slow Zones

August 06, 2020

All boaters can help save right whales by slowing down in Right Whale Slow Zones.

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Right Whales at Risk

North Atlantic right whales are one of the world’s most endangered large whale species. With their population numbering only around 400 animals, the population is in decline. Vessel collisions (strikes) are one of the major threats that these animals face. That’s why we’re announcing Right Whale Slow Zones—we’re asking vessel operators to get involved in reducing the risk of vessel strike in U.S. waters.

Any sized vessel can present a problem if it strikes a whale. A vessel can leave an injured whale with wounds that make it vulnerable to other threats or even cause its death. This season alone, two calves have been struck by vessels in U.S. waters. One calf has not been sighted since it was struck by a boat in mid-January off the coast of Georgia. The other was found dead off the coast of New Jersey in June with evidence of multiple vessel strikes. Early evidence suggests that small vessels may have been involved in at least one of these collisions. These recent losses remind us that more needs to be done to reduce the risk of vessel strike to right whales.


Right whale #3560 with her calf off Georgia in December 2019. Photo courtesy of Georgia Department of Natural Resources/CMARI Aerial Survey

Right Whale Slow Zones

Through the new Slow Zones campaign, we will map and provide coordinates to vessel operators indicating areas where right whales have been detected. We are asking all vessel operators to take precautions for 15 days by slowing to 10 knots or less in those areas. Right Whale Slow Zones can occur in waters from Maine through Virginia. 

Using “Sound” Science to Protect a Species

The Slow Zones program uses sound collected from underwater acoustic listening devices to detect right whales. These scientific data, in addition to visual sightings, will allow us to be more proactive in addressing the risks all boats pose to right whales. It will also enable us to better notify researchers, managers—and now all boaters—of the presence of right whales in the area. It complements our voluntary Dynamic Management Area program for larger ships.

A special thanks to our North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Plan Northeast U.S. Implementation Team who provided guidance, expertise, and support that provided the foundation for this initiative.

Expanding Existing Efforts

Since 2008, NOAA Fisheries has worked with numerous partners to help reduce the risk of vessel strike from larger vessels (65 feet or longer). Partners in the Greater Atlantic Region include:

  • Shipping industry
  • United States Coast Guard
  • NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement
  • Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

While these measures and partnerships are helping, right whales continue to be at risk. Boat operators often don’t know where right whales are. We want to help all vessel operators learn where these whales are located so they can slow down and reduce this risk, both to the animals and themselves.

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Dead right whale found floating off New Jersey on June 25 shows sign of a vessel collision.

Stay Up To Date With Slow Zone Notifications

Right Whale Slow Zones can occur in waters from Maine through Virginia where right whales are sighted or detected. They will last for 15 days after the detection occurs. Notifications of these zones will be sent through multiple channels.

Large vessels will receive notifications through the current right whale notification process— notification emails and U.S.Coast Guard radio announcements. 

All boaters, or interested parties, can sign up for email notifications here and select "Right Whale Slow Zones" under the Regional New England/Mid-Atlantic subscription topics.

You can also follow us on Facebook (@NOAAFisheriesNEMA) and Twitter  (@NOAAFish_GARFO)  for announcements.

You can check for Right Whale Slow Zones on our online right whale sightings map. You can also download the free Whale Alert app, which will automatically notify you when you enter one of these areas.

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This is an example of how the Slow Zones will be displayed in the emails received by boaters who sign up to receive direct notifications.



Information for Boaters 

Why Does Speed Matter?

Boats of any size can kill a whale if a collision occurs. Sometimes the death does not occur immediately, but can impair the animal’s health or behavior. This makes it susceptible to infection, or—in the case of this latest calf’s death—additional vessel strikes. Going slower (10 knots or less) allows you to keep a close eye out for right whales and other protected species. If a strike does occur, reducing your speed will lower the chances of it being a fatal collision for the whale.

Why Should Small Boaters Care?

Given the precarious state of the right whale population, every whale saved has a big impact on the species’ longer term survival. We know small- and medium-sized boats can pose a threat to right whales, so your actions can help avoid these disasters.

For small boaters, colliding with a whale can be especially dangerous for your passengers and destructive to your vessel. Given how difficult right whales can be to spot from the water, slowing down in these zones helps keep everyone safe.

You Can Make a Difference for Right Whales

All vessel owners can help right whales—both small and large boat owners! Here are some actions you can take to help North Atlantic right whales recover:

  • Sign up for our Right Whale Slow Zone notifications and go slow in or avoid any areas where right whales have recently been sighted or heard.
  • Report right whale sightings. Please report all right whale sightings from Virginia to Maine to (866) 755-6622. Right whale sightings in any location may also be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard via channel 16 or through the WhaleAlert mobile app.
  • Keep your distance if you see a right whale. Federal regulations require boats, aircraft (including drones), people using other watercraft such as surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks, and jet-skis, and divers and snorkelers to stay at least 500 yards away from North Atlantic right whales.
  • Know where the annual and predictable Seasonal Management Areas are located and go SLOWLY (10 knots or less) in season when boating in these areas.
  • Spread the word about Right Whale Slow Zones to boaters by sharing social media messages and alerts.

Last updated by Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office on April 28, 2021