Editor's Note December 4, 2023: Endangered North Atlantic right whales are approaching extinction. There are approximately 360 individuals remaining, including fewer than 70 reproductively active females. Human impacts continue to threaten the survival of this species.
NOAA Fisheries is proposing changes to the North Atlantic right whale vessel speed rule to further reduce the likelihood of lethal vessel collisions. The changes would broaden the spatial boundaries and timing of seasonal speed restriction areas along the U.S. East Coast. They would also expand mandatory speed restrictions of 10 knots or less to include most vessels 35–65 feet in length.
“Collisions with vessels continue to impede North Atlantic right whale recovery. This proposed action is necessary to stabilize the ongoing right whale population decline, in combination with other efforts to address right whale entanglement and vessel strikes in the U.S. and Canada,” said Janet Coit, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries.
Proposed changes to the current speed rule address two key problems impacting right whale recovery:
- Misalignment between areas and times of high vessel strike risk and current Seasonal Management Areas spatial and temporal bounds
- Lack of mandatory speed restriction on vessels between 35 and 65 feet in length that present a lethal threat to right whales
During the past two and a half years alone NOAA Fisheries has documented four lethal (death and serious injury) right whale vessel strike events in U.S. waters. These events are impeding the species’ recovery and contributing to the population's decline.
Additional changes to the speed rule include:
- Creation of a mandatory Dynamic Speed Zone program establishing temporary 10-knot transit zones when right whales are detected outside designated Seasonal Speed Zones
- Updates to the rule’s safety provisions, allowing vessels to exceed the 10-knot restriction in limited circumstances
North Atlantic right whales are approaching extinction with fewer than 350 individuals and fewer than 100 reproductively active females remaining. This decline is associated with an ongoing Unusual Mortality Event that has documented 92 right whale deaths, serious injuries and morbidity (sublethal injuries/illness) cases in U.S. and Canadian waters since 2017. Climate-related impacts and prey availability have contributed to the population’s reduced fitness. However, vessel strikes and entanglements continue to drive the population’s decline and are the primary cause of serious injuries and mortalities. North Atlantic right whales are especially vulnerable to vessel strikes due to their coastal distribution and frequent occurrence at near-surface depths. This is particularly true for females with calves.
“We have made progress in addressing the threat of vessel strikes, but additional action is warranted to further reduce the risk of lethal strike events to ensure the species can get back on track to recovery,” said Kim Damon-Randall, Director, Office of Protected Resources, NOAA Fisheries.
NOAA Fisheries and our partners are dedicated to conserving the North Atlantic right whale population.