A federal agency wants to set a speed limit for ships along stretches of the East Coast to help protect endangered whales from deadly collisions.
The proposed regulations, filed Friday by the National Marine Fisheries Service, call for a speed limit of 10 knots, about 11.5 mph, for vessels 65 feet or longer in certain areas when North Atlantic right whales are active.
“At that speed a collision is less likely to be lethal,” agency spokeswoman Teri Frady said.
About 300 right whales live in the Northern Hemisphere. They have been listed as endangered since 1970.
"Reducing serious injuries and deaths among right whales due to ship collisions will allow more of these rare animals to reach maturity and to reproduce. That's a key factor for recovery," Fisheries Service Director Bill Hogarth said in a statement. "We believe the measures proposed here will make U.S. East Coast waters safer for right whales."
Ship strikes are responsible for about half of all known, human-caused deaths of the mammals, which tend to swim near the water’s surface and often don’t notice their surroundings when they eat, according to the fisheries service.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that has urged speed limits, praised the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the Fisheries Service.
“This welcome step is long overdue,” PEER staffer Kyla Bennett, said in a statement where she added that NOAA overcame opposition from both the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. “NOAA deserves congratulations for doing the right thing in the face of stiff resistance. This action will, hopefully, be in time to save the remaining population.”
The speed limit was among recommendations made by retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Bill Russell in 2001 in a report published for the federal government on reducing ship strikes. “I’m encouraged that they’re finally doing something,” Russell said.
After a public-comment period, the fisheries service will make a recommendation to the secretary of commerce, who makes the final decision.
In the whales’ nursery grounds off southern Georgia and northern Florida, the mandatory speed limit would apply from Nov. 15 through April 15. Along their mid-Atlantic migratory route from northern Georgia to Rhode Island, the restriction would begin Nov. 1 and end April 30.
Off the Massachusetts coast, where right whales feed from January through July, restrictions would be implemented in Cape Cod Bay from Jan. 1 through mid-May; off Race Point at the northern end of Cape Cod from March 1 through April 30 and the Great South Channel from April 1 through July 21.
Federal vessels would be excluded.