Collisions with ships killed more than a third of the right whales reported dead between 1970 and 2007

Ship strikes

A container ship narrowly misses a blue whale. NOAA

Collisions with vessels killed at least 24 of the 67 right whales reported dead between 1970 and 2007. An unknown number more are struck but never reported, either because ships' crews don’t feel the impact, or because the whale survives to swim away, only to die later. As big as right whales are, they’re no match for a 90,000 ton container ship traveling at 15 mph or more. Collisions shatter whales’ skulls, break their bones, and cause massive bruises. A ship’s propellers can slice through skin and blubber, or sever the tail entirely.

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries Service) coordinates a multi-faceted program aimed at reducing the risk of vessel collisions with these critically endangered whales. Since 1997, all vessels have been prohibited from approaching within 500 yards of a right whale, and since 1999, ships have been required to report into “Mandatory Ship Reporting” system areas. Under the requirements of this system, when entering specific areas vessels call in to provide their location, destination, and speed, and receive a return message providing locations of current right whale aggregations and offering advisories about safe operating measures and other regulations in place to protect right whales.

In 2006, in collaboration with the US Coast Guard, NOAA Fisheries Service established Recommended Routes for vessels in the right whale’s Cape Cod Bay feeding grounds and southeastern US calving grounds. These routes direct vessels around areas where right whales have been sighted most frequently in the past, reducing the chance of a ship encountering a whale. Similarly, in 2007, the United States initiated actions that narrowed and slightly shifted the shipping channels into and out of Boston Harbor. Using past whale sightings as a guide, researchers at NOAA Fisheries Service and the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary estimate the new routes could reduce right whale collisions in the area by 58 percent.

In 2008, NOAA Fisheries Service made even further progress by requiring vessels to reduce their speed to 11.5 mph in specific areas along the US East Coast where right whales feed, migrate, and calve. In addition, the US submitted a proposal to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to establish an Area To Be Avoided (ATBA) in the Great South Channel, an important feeding area for right whales. Data show that this measure is already resulting in significantly less ship traffic through the area, which means fewer opportunities for whales to be struck.

Although huge strides have been taken toward making vessel activity more compatible with right whale conservation, there is still work to be done. Vessel traffic continues to grow worldwide, and with it the risk of more collisions. In the 19 years from 1972 to 1990, only seven right whale strikes were reported. In the next 14 years, 17 right whales were reported struck. Already, Boston sees more than 1,500 ship visits per year, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. And traffic along the U.S. Atlantic Coast as a whole is projected to double between 2000 and 2020.

It’s our hope to reduce vessel strikes still further using an array of auto-detection buoys. The buoys feed information to alerts such as the Northeast U.S. Right Whale Sighting Advisory System, giving vessel captains the information they need to slow down when whales are present.

More about threats to right whales:

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