The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species. The latest preliminary estimate suggests there are fewer than 350 individuals remaining, including fewer than 70 breeding females. The species has been experiencing an Unusual Mortality Event since 2017. NOAA Fisheries and our partners are dedicated to conserving and rebuilding their population, and NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement plays an important role. We enforce regulations designed to mitigate entanglement in fixed fishing gear and vessel strikes, two of the greatest threats to their recovery.
Vessel Speed Enforcement
From November to July, multiple Seasonal Management Areas go into effect on the East Coast. Since 2008, these areas have protected right whales from vessel strikes in their feeding and calving grounds and on their migratory routes. During these times of year, most vessels 65 feet or longer are required to reduce their speeds to 10 knots or slower while transiting the designated areas.
NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement is charged with enforcing these regulations and helping the public comply with the rules. To enforce the speed rule, we deploy a number of technologies and strategies, including:
- Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) to detect speeding;
- Portable radar units to detect speeding by vessels not carrying AIS;
- Active patrolling of Seasonal Management Areas
Thanks to our investigative work, NOAA has assessed $218,500 in penalties across 19 cases for violations during the 2021–2022 season. In addition to these cases, other speeding violations are being actively investigated and may be subject to potential civil penalties.
Beyond enforcement, we also provide the public with the information they need to comply with rules. Since November 2021, we have instructed hundreds of vessel owners along the Atlantic coast about the current vessel speed rule and the potential penalties for violations. In addition, reacting in near-real time and leveraging satellite-based technologies, we have sent more than 100 alerts to vessels operating in close proximity to right whales.
In 2021, NOAA Fisheries issued significant new regulations to address right whale entanglement in the Northeast lobster and Jonah crab fixed trap/pot fisheries. Since these were implemented in May 2022, our Northeast team, state, and U.S. Coast Guard enforcement partners conducted more than 110 lobster and crab pot/trap fixed gear-focused patrols. During those patrols, agents and officers collectively inspected more than 800 individual vessels. They found that more than 75 percent of vessels were compliant with the new regulations designed to protect right whales.
In the Southeast, longstanding gear regulations designed to protect right whales remain unchanged. In June 2022, we prosecuted a person for fishing crab pots without markings and weak links required to protect right whales. They were assessed a $5,500 penalty.
It will take everyone’s cooperation and contributions to save these endangered whales, and put them on a path to recovery.
- To report a violation, call the Law Enforcement Hotline, available 24/7 at (800) 853-1964
- To report a whale or other marine animal in distress, call (866) 755-6622 in the Greater Atlantic Region (Virginia to Maine) and call (877-942-5343) in the Southeast Region (Florida to North Carolina)
- For general law enforcement questions, contact our Northeast Division at (978) 281-9213 (ext. 2, compliance assistance) or Southeast Division at (727) 824-5344