WASHINGTON — The endangered North Atlantic right whale soon will benefit from greater protection thanks to a new regulation that will reduce the speed at which large commercial ships can travel along the East Coast.
Although the regulations won’t affect ships traveling in Maine waters, the state’s lobstermen’s association welcomed the news as recognition that both fishing and shipping industries should share responsibility for protection of the right whales.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, which issued the regulation, said its goal is to reduce collisions between North Atlantic right whales and ships, one of the most common human-related causes of the mammal’s death.
“There are only 300 to 400 left in the world,” Connie Barclay, spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries, said of the right whales. “They are slow-moving and very vulnerable to ship collision.” She said several whales are killed every year as a result of being hit by ships.
Ships will be required to stay at speeds below 10 knots in certain coastal regions. The regulation will take effect in two months and apply to ships of 65 feet or longer within 20 miles of the East Coast from Massachusetts to Florida, an area where the right whales feed, reproduce and migrate.
The new rule is part of NOAA’s ongoing efforts to protect the whales. Those efforts include aerial whale surveillance and a mandatory ship reporting system.
The North Atlantic right whale has been on the endangered species list since 1973, according to NOAA. That same year, they also were designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The speed reduction won’t apply to Maine because the concentration of right whales is not great enough in the waters off the state’s coast according to Vicki Cornish, vice president of the marine wildlife conservation at the Ocean Conservancy.
However, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association supports the passage of the regulation.
For the past 10 years there have been a number of federal rules and restrictions on fishing gear that have applied to Maine fishermen, according to Patrice McCarron, executive president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
These are designed to prevent whales’ entanglement in fishing gear, the other most common cause of whale deaths.
McCarron said the group supports ship-speed reduction because the fishing industry should not be singled out for restrictions, and both threats should be addressed.
“If the shipping industry is having a negative impact, it should have some restrictions as well,” McCarron said. “The precedent is good. We all need to step up to the plate and do something.”
Both Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe and Democratic Rep. Tom Allen said they were pleased with the rule.
“There is an unquestionable need to reduce the occurrence of right whale-ship strikes,” Snowe said in a press release. “For years, Maine lobstermen have made considerable efforts to abide by new fishing gear rules, so it is highly appropriate to address other causes of whales’ mortality.”
The regulation “ensures that all parties, not just lobstermen, are working hard to conserve our natural resources,” Allen said in a press release.
The new NOAA rule will be up for renewal in five years, after scientists assess the effectiveness of the restrictions.
The Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife and the Ocean Conservancy, all of which have been pushing for the rule’s implementation, said they were satisfied but disappointed the rule was not made permanent.
“We are very happy that the speed restrictions are in place on the East Coast. The need has been known for seven years,” Cornish said. “But we do feel like the agency made some pretty big compromises by reducing the restriction areas and adding a five-year provision. It could cause NOAA to stop the rule early and we are concerned about that.”
Barclay said that the five-year provision would allow NOAA scientists to assess how the rule is working.
“It’s a complicated issue,” she said. “It gives us more time and a chance to improve the rule.”