A right whale fluke
By Beth Daley, Globe Staff
For ten years, scientists and environmentalists have fought to force large ships to slow down to avoid hitting the world’s remaining 400 North Atlantic right whales.
Starting tomorrow, ships will finally have to put on the brakes.
A new federal rule requires ships 65 feet or larger to slow down to 11.5 miles per hour, or 10 knots, near East Coast ports when whales could be nearby. The lumbering, giant whales feed close to the sea surface and are at great risk of being struck by ships – especially because many shipping lanes slice across their migration routes. Whales are just now beginning their seasonal migration from New England waters to their calving grounds off Florida and Georgia.
“At long last, the ocean is going to be a little bit safer for right whales - cause for celebration amongst the many of us who have worked for the past decade to see this rule enacted,” said Amy Knowlton of the Aquarium’s right whale research team.
The dark-colored whales - so-named because they were the "right" whale to kill for oil because they floated when dead - have never made a comeback after being hunted nearly to extinction in the 1700s. Many of the creatures get tangled in fishing gear, but scientists say ships are their major killer: At least one-third of all the right whales that died in the last decade died from ship strikes. Since 2001, at least 12 right whales have been struck by ships and scientists suspect even more have been hit.
While researchers have known for years that right whales were particularly vulnerable to ship strikes, the shipping industry was loath to slow down maritime traffic, saying it would cost too much to do so.
Yet in recent years, a growing body of evidence showed that the probability of right whales dying after being struck drops from over 80 percent if a vessel is traveling about 17 miles per hour or more to just over 20 percent if one is traveling 11.5 miles per hour or less. The average speed of vessels in right whale habitats have been around 17 miles per hour.
While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sent a marine speed limit rule to the White House to be finalized in early 2007, it floundered in the federal Office of Management and Budget. It wasn’t until environmentalists, Sen. John Kerry and others publically urged its passage that the rule was released – although slightly weaker than what many scientists wanted.
Still, few environmentalists or scientists are complaining today. They say the rule will help save right whale lives. And that just may mean, Knowlton says, the survival of the species.