Vessels off the East Coast of the United States must slow down more often to help save a vanishing species of whale from extinction, the federal government has said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made the announcement on Friday via new proposed rules designed to prevent ships colliding with North Atlantic right whales.
Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the two biggest threats to the giant animals, which number less than 340 and are falling in population.
Efforts to save the whales have long focused on fishing gear, especially that used by East Coast lobster fishermen. The proposed vessel speed rules signal that the government wants the shipping industry to take more responsibility.
“Changes to the existing vessel speed regulation are essential to stabilize the ongoing right whale population decline and prevent the species’ extinction,” state the proposed rules, which are slated to be published in the federal register.
The new rules would expand seasonal slow zones off the East Coast that require mariners to slow down to 10 knots (19 km/h). They would also require more vessels to comply with the rules by expanding the size classes that must slow down.
The rules also state that NOAA would create a framework to implement mandatory speed restrictions when whales are known to be present outside the seasonal slow zones.
Federal authorities spent a few years reviewing the speed regulations used to protect the whales. The shipping rules have long focused on a patchwork of slow zones that require mariners to slow down for whales. Some of the zones are mandatory, while others are voluntary.
Environmental groups have made the case that many boats do not comply with the speed restrictions and that the rules need to be tighter.
Environmental organisation Oceana released a report in 2021 that said noncompliance was as high as nearly 90 percent in voluntary zones and was also dangerously low in the mandatory ones.
More than 50 of the whales were struck by ships between spring 1999 and spring 2018, NOAA records state. Scientists have said in recent years that warming ocean temperatures are causing the whales to stray out of protected areas and into shipping lanes in search of food.