Advocates Urge Shipping Speed Limits to Protect Endangered Gulf Whale

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A coalition of environmental groups is urging the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to set an 11.5 mph limit on shipping speeds in an 11,500 square mile stretch of water off the Gulf Coast of Florida and Alabama. Advocates say the caps are necessary to protect an endangered whale species, discovered just this past January, of which only 33 individuals remain — they are now known as Rice’s whales for the scientist who first recognized them in the Gulf. Similar speed restrictions issued in November 2020 in New England proved effective in protecting North Atlantic Right whales, which have since seen a small population boom.

Why This Matters: Whales, despite operating at the top of their food chains, face mass casualties and mortal threats from human activity. Of the 13 great whale species, six are endangered, and over 300,000 whales fall victim to bycatch, vessel strikes, and other dangers each year. Some of the most endangered whales in the world reside off the East coast of the U.S., and their migration paths often cross those of shipping vessels. Losing these creatures would be a tragedy, but protections like these have been proven effective with little impact on the shipping economy. To fulfill the Biden administration’s pledge to protect 30% of U.S. land and waters by 2030, NOAA must take action to protect the animals and ecosystems that keep our oceans healthy.

New Friends

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Healthy Gulf, the Center For Biological Diversity, Defenders Of Wildlife, Earthjustice, and the New England Aquarium have all signed onto the petition to establish shipping speed restrictions. “One of the rarest, most endangered whales on the planet is in our backyard, and we have a responsibility to save it,” said Michael Jasny, the director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC. The newly discovered Rice’s whale is a slender filter feeder and the only baleen whales that live in the region full time, making them vulnerable to ships year-round.  Scientists are certain that there are fewer than 100 of them — this tiny population is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

They were classified as one of three of Bryde’s (pronounced BROO-duhs) whale subspecies, but many scientists suspected they were something different.

Shipping speeds in the region average 15 to 25 mph, and although the coast guard provides suggestions as to how speeds in whale habitats should be determined, it does not impose speed limits. Newly proposed limitations of 11.5 miles per hour would apply to roughly 12.5% of Florida’s waters but less than 5% of the Gulf of Mexico. Within the Rice’s whales’ core habitat, the coalition asks that ships follow specific guidelines to avoid striking any whales, including:

  • Avoiding core habitat areas at night, when Rice’s whales are likely to spend time near the surface.
  • Maintaining a distance of 550 yards from any whales spotted.

These guidelines would apply to a 9,100-square mile stretch of waters as well as a 6.2-mile buffer zone surrounding it. Similar protections for the North Atlantic Right whale were incredibly successful and led to the species’ best calving season in years. Advocates hope that by implementing protections in the gulf, Rice’s whale can see similar results.

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