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Boaters And Ship Operators Are Breaking Speed Limits, Putting Right Whales At Even More Risk

North Atlantic Right Whale
NOAA Fisheries
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered large whale species in the world with less than 400 remaining, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Boats and cargo ships in the waters of North Carolina and other Southern states are exceeding speed limits in areas designed to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, a new report from a global non-profit has found.

According to the findings by Oceana, an international conservation group, almost 40% of vessels in the ports of Morehead City and Beaufort went faster than the mandatory 10 knots per hour limit in 2019 and 2020. Collisions with boats and ships are a leading cause of injury and death for North Atlantic right whales.

The report analyzed speeds in speed zones laid out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) along the U.S. Atlantic coast. The conservation group found "non-compliance was as high as almost 90% in mandatory speed zones, and non-cooperation was as high as almost 85% in voluntary areas."

In the report, Oceana cites a study that determined reducing vessel speeds to 10 knots per hour cuts a North Atlantic right whale's risk of death by 80-90%.

The North Atlantic right whale can weigh up to 140,000 pounds and live up to 70 years. Though they often spend spring, summer, and some of the fall in New England and further north, some travel more than 1,000 miles south — as far south as Florida — to birth their calves. Groups of North Atlantic right whales sometimes spend time socializing at the water's surface.

Oceana Field Representative Paulita Bennett-Martin says boaters must follow the rules to protect these endangered whales.

"There's only about 360 of them left. We're basically swimming toward extinction with these whales," said Bennett-Martin. "So it's vital that people slow down, are careful. It's also safe for [the boaters] themselves."

Bennett-Martin says the federal speed limit first created in 2008 should be updated to improve accountability for violators.

Oceana is further calling on NOAA to "improve compliance and enforcement of mandatory speed limits" and to "expand speed requirements to include vessels under 65 feet in length," along with other proposed changes.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
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