Groups Demand Urgent Rules to Protect Whales from Ships

    16 October 2023

    An alliance of environmental groups is calling for new federal rules to protect an endangered whale from crashes with ships.

    The groups presented their demands in a document, called a petition, provided to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on September 28.

    The action aims to protect the North Atlantic right whale, which has long been considered endangered. The population of these extremely large sea animals has decreased sharply in recent years. Just 340 are believed to be alive today.

    FILE - A North Atlantic right whale is seen feeding on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass., March 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
    FILE - A North Atlantic right whale is seen feeding on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass., March 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

    Officials at NOAA have said ship collisions are among the most serious threats to the survival of the whale. One rule the environmental groups are calling for would seek to prevent ship strikes by making more ships slow down for whales. NOAA has yet to release a final updated speed rule although it proposed new rules more than a year ago, the groups said.

    Environmentalists have appealed for urgency in enacting the measure. They say it is important to approve new rules before the upcoming birthing season. At that time of year, the whales migrate hundreds of miles from waters off New England and Canada to areas off the coasts of Florida and Georgia.

    "Even one ship strike would bring these whales closer to extinction, but speed limits can help prevent that," said Kristen Monsell. She is a legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that prepared the petition to NOAA. "Federal officials can't sit back and do nothing while right whales are in danger," Monsell told The Associated Press.

    Katie Wagner is a spokesperson for NOAA. She said she expects the agency to announce its final action on the proposed rule sometime this year. That means the rule could be publicized during the middle of calving season and may not be put into effect until even later.

    Wagner said NOAA knows about the petition but has a policy not to comment on legal matters. The agency is considering expanding "slow zones" off the U.S. East Coast, and also requiring more ships to obey those rules.

    NOAA denied a request from environmentalists last year to immediately put new rules in place. At the time, the agency said in public documents that it was considering "long-term, substantive" measures to reduce whale strikes by ships. Wagner said NOAA received more than 90,000 comments on the proposed rule and would use those to decide on its final action.

    Right whales were once common off the U.S. East Coast. But the animals fell in numbers after years of heavy hunting activities. The whales have long been protected under the Endangered Species Act.

    Right whales are also at risk of becoming accidentally entangled in fishing equipment. Proposed restrictions to prevent such entanglements have been the subject of a legal case between the federal government and fishermen.

    I'm Bryan Lynn.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    extinct – adj. no longer existing; when a living thing disappears from the Earth forever

    calving –n. a word for when certain animals give birth

    substantive – adj. important or serious

    entangle – v. to cause something to become caught in something such as a net or ropes