Two flippers up for the Obama Administration, which has just agreed to formally extend shipping speed limits in certain ecologically sensitive areas in the interest of protecting right whales. The regulation reduces the risk of collisions, currently one of the leading threats to right whale survival (the other is entanglement in commercial fishing equipment), as these lovely ocean dwellers are unfortunately very common victims of ship-related incidents. By making this move, the administration is taking a positive step for whales and sending a larger message about the need to balance conservation and commerce.
The regulation mandates reduced speed in certain zones known to be frequented by right whales, and it applies to all vessels greater than 65 feet in length. In the five years since the initial regulation was passed (this is an extension of the original law, which was about to expire under a sunset clause), no recorded deaths have occurred in the designated zones, showing that asking ships to slow down to 10 knots or less is an effective way to address this issue. The forced reduced speed gives ships more stopping and turning time, and it’s good for the whales, too, giving them more warning so they can get out of the way.
In addition to the speed limits, some changes have also been made to shipping lanes in order to control traffic more effectively. These changes funnel ship traffic away from high whale traffic areas — since whales don’t follow maritime law, it’s up to government agencies to develop regulations to protect them by respecting the traffic lanes they’ve mapped out for themselves. By using constant study and observation, officials can determine if it’s necessary to move, narrow or otherwise adjust shipping lanes in order to accommodate the peregrinations of the whale population. The renewed regulation has no sunset clause, so it will remain active forever — or until another Presidential administration attempts to modify it.
It’s estimated that there are fewer than 500 right whales left in the world, putting them in an extremely vulnerable position. These once-abundant creatures have unfortunately been victims of progress because they stick close to shore, tend to swim more slowly than other whale species and spend a great deal of time at the surface of the ocean. In the whaling era, they were the “right” whale to catch because they were easy to pursue and wrangle on board for processing. Tragically, that means that today, they’re a rare and precious sight. Losing them to ship strikes and other preventable incidents was particularly unfortunate, making the passage of these regulations an important conservation step.
This situation provides an interesting test case. For shipping, it’s critical to be able to move freely through U.S. territorial waters in order to accomplish tasks ranging from moving goods to providing cruises. For whales, it’s equally critical to be able to move through those waters in search of food and safe places to calve. These two interests don’t necessarily have to be in conflict if the needs of all parties are considered equally, which the speed limit laws accomplish, by asking that ships slow to accommodate whales. Think of it as a “school zone” for the marine mammals (yes, we know whales come in pods, but “pod zone” just isn’t as punny).
The decision to extend the regulations hopefully means that right whales will continue to swim in safety in the North Atlantic, and if all goes well, we’ll see their numbers on the rise in the future.
Photo credit: eGuide Travel.