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Help Endangered Whales: Slow Down in Slow Zones

December 23, 2021

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 the latest preliminary estimate suggesting there are fewer than 350 animals remaining, the population is in decline and needs our help. Vessel collisions (strikes) are one of the major threats that these animals face. That’s why we announce Right Whale Slow Zones—to help vessel operators to get involved in reducing the risk of vessel strikes in U.S. waters.

Collisions with whales can involve boats of any size and result in injuries or even the death of a whale. Over the past two years, three right whale calves were struck by vessels in U.S. waters. One calf was found dead with evidence of at least two separate vessel collisions, a second was killed in a strike that also involved its mother, and the third was seriously injured and has not been seen again. Vessels less than 65 ft in length were involved in two of these collisions. These recent losses remind us that more needs to be done to reduce the risk of vessel strikes to right whales.

 

Dead right whale found floating off New Jersey on June 25 had injuries from two separate vessel collisions.
Dead right whale found floating off New Jersey on June 25 had injuries from two separate vessel collisions.

Using Sight and Sound to Protect a Species

For years NOAA Fisheries used the Dynamic Management Areas (DMAs) program, which uses visual sightings of three or more right whales to establish voluntary speed reduction areas, to alert vessel operators of where reduced speeds could help protect right whales. Today advances in acoustic science allow us to share more information about areas where right whales are detected. Based on recommendations from our North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Plan Northeast U.S. Implementation Team, we began the Right Whale Slow Zones campaign throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic. This campaign combines information from our DMA program with the information we receive from acoustic receivers to alert vessel operators of areas where right whales have been seen and heard.

Visual sightings commonly come from aerial surveys, but may also come from observations by vessel or from shore.
Visual sightings commonly come from aerial surveys, but may also come from observations by vessel or from shore. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.
Underwater glider.
Acoustic devices such as monitoring buoys or underwater vehicles or “gliders” collect data on sound. This scientific data is used to identify vocalizations that are unique to North Atlantic right whales and evaluate the occurrence of North Atlantic right whales.

Under this campaign, we map and provide coordinates to areas where right whales were detected (i.e., visually sighted or acoustically detected). Following a right whale detection, a visually-triggered Slow Zone (a.k.a. DMA) or acoustically-triggered Slow Zone will remain in effect for 15 days. During this time, mariners are requested to avoid the areas or slow all vessels to 10 knots or less to prevent collisions with right whales.

Providing more information to vessel operators about visual sightings and acoustic detections, allows them to be more proactive - by avoiding these areas or slowing to 10 knots or less - in reducing the risks all boats pose to right whales.

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.

While current measures in place are helping, right whales continue to be at risk. Boat operators often don’t know where right whales are because they can be difficult to spot. We want to help all vessel operators learn where these whales are detected so they can slow down and reduce the risk, both to the animals and themselves.

Vessels receive notifications through the current right whale notification process—notification emails, in addition to U.S.Coast Guard radio and National Weather Service announcements. 

All boaters from Maine to Virginia, or interested parties, can sign up for email or text notifications about the latest Right Whale Slow Zones. Anyone 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.

Slow Zone Example
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. These injuries are likely to result in an infection, weaken its ability to reproduce, and make it unable to avoid additional collisions with oncoming vessels. 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 you, 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 December 23, 2021