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Ships Slow Down for Endangered Whales
December 31, 2009

Just as the first North Atlantic right whales are spotted making their seasonal migration from New England waters to their calving grounds off Florida and Georgia, these critically endangered animals are finally getting protection from fast moving ships that accidentally kill or injure the majestic animals along the East Coast.

Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has mandated that ships slow down to 10 knots within 20 miles of East Coast ports during the season when right whales are migrating to and from the calving grounds in the southeast U.S. With fewer than 400 remaining, North Atlantic right whales are considered among the most endangered large whale species in the world. Since 2001, 12 right whales have been struck and killed by vessels along the Atlantic coast. Right whales are particularly vulnerable to vessel strikes as they are slow swimming and spend much time near the water’s surface. This regulation will impose seasonal speed restrictions throughout the right whale’s range from the Gulf of Maine to Florida.

For the last 10 years, the New England Aquarium’s North Atlantic right whale team and other protection groups have been working with the federal government to pass this mandatory speed limit despite concerns from the shipping industry and resistance from the Bush administration. Researchers have found that the probability of right whales dying after being struck drops from over 80% when a vessel is traveling at 15 knots or more to just above 20% when a vessel is traveling at 10 knots or less. Average vessel speeds in critical right whale habitats have been around 15 knots.

New England Aquarium and participating Right Whale Consortium scientists have created the world’s most extensive data base of all of known right whales. Accessible to the public at, the catalog of over 45,000 photographed sightings allows scientists to identify whales by their callosities – or roughened skin patches on top of their head and to also monitor the level of vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements. Scientists can then track their whereabouts, births, death, and other information.

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