Numbering just 500, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is one of the rarest animals in the world. The whales have been hunted nearly to extinction. Now protected, their biggest threats are being hit by ships and entanglement in fishing gear. With no progress in reducing entanglement deaths, reducing ship collisions has become even more important.

The speed a ship is going means the difference between life and death for the whales. New research has found that if ships are travelling at less than 10 knots then all right whales survive.

When large vessels travel at more than 10 knots, whales are pulled towards the ships’ hulls and propellers with increasing force as the ship goes faster. The whales are also more likely to be run into by ships travelling at speed.

In 2008 America introduced seasonal speed restrictions in right whale feeding areas, migratory corridors and calving areas off the east coast. The original proposals were watered down though – the corridors protected were narrower than the actual migratory routes for example.

Since the speed limits were imposed, no right whales whatsoever have been killed by colliding with ships in the managed areas! A significant boost for whale numbers. The research was published in the Endangered Species Research journal by David W. Laist, Amy R. Knowlton and Daniel Pendleton. The researchers call for the protection for migratory corridors to be widened and the speed limits retained indefinitely. They also want more seasonal restrictions to protect humpback whales. There are people suggesting that dredged channels be exempt from the restrictions, but the researchers point out that because whales must travel across those channels they are at no less risk of being struck and so the dredged channels should stay.

Photo by Wildlife Trust, NOAA Permit #594-1759, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Further Reading
Laist DW, Knowlton AR, Pendleton D (2014) Effectiveness of mandatory vessel speed limits for protecting North Atlantic right whales. Endang Species Res 23:133-147
The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium


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