The North Atlantic right whale, once abundant in continental shelf waters around much of the North Atlantic Ocean, is now among the world's most endangered large mammals. What remains is a population of only about 500 whales living principally along the east coasts of the United States and Canada.
Right whales were hunted off Europe from as early as the 9th century and they were a major target of American shore- and ship-based whalers through the middle of the 18th century. Their depleted populations continued to be subjected to whaling through the first decades of the 20th century, and by 1935, when right whales were given legal protection under an international agreement, they were nearly extinct in the North Atlantic. Since then, their numbers have increased in the western North Atlantic, but that increase has been slowed by mortality from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. North Atlantic right whales are now effectively absent from the eastern North Atlantic.
Nearly half of all documented deaths of North Atlantic right whales since 1970 have been due to ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear (see figure below). A recovery plan for the species was adopted in 1991 and updated in 2005. In 1994 three areas were designated as critical habitat: two feeding areas in Cape Cod Bay and the Great South Channel off Massachusetts, and the species’ calving grounds off Florida and Georgia.
Known North Atlantic right whale deaths, with causes as determined from necropsy or other evidence, from 1970 through 2013. (Perinatal deaths are calves that die during the first months of life for reasons that cannot be attributed to human causes.)
Almost all lethal ship strikes on right whales have been found to involve massive injuries that indicate they were hit by large vessels (Laist et al. 2001). As described in past Marine Mammal Commission annual reports, initial efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s to reduce the incidence of ship strikes emphasized public outreach urging mariners to keep a sharp lookout for right whales in areas where they were likely to occur, to take evasive action when a whale was sighted, and to reduce vessel speeds. When this voluntary approach failed to reduce vessel-related deaths, the National Marine Fisheries Service began in 2001 to develop a right whale ship strike reduction strategy, the core of which involved vessel routing measures and regulations to seasonally restrict ship speeds off major ports and in important feeding and calving areas.
Between 2006 and 2009, the Service, in cooperation with the Coast Guard, adopted a series of routing measure. In 2006 shipping lanes were established off major ports in the vicinity of the right whale calving grounds. In 2009, after a review of a proposal by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), two additional routing measures were implemented. One altered the Traffic Separation Scheme off Boston Harbor to route ships through an area where research by staff of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary had found that right whales are less likely to occur; the other designated certain waters in the Great South Channel off Cape Cod as an “Area To Be Avoided” by ships. Although such routing measures are not mandatory, most large ships tend to follow them once they are added to nautical charts because they carry an IMO endorsement. This has been particularly true for measures identifying vessel traffic lanes.
In June 2006 the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed a rule to require vessels longer than 65 feet to use speeds of 10 knots or less during periods of peak right whale occurrence off half a dozen ports along the migratory corridor between New York and Georgia, in calving areas off Florida and Georgia, and in feeding areas off Massachusetts (71 Fed. Reg. 36299). As indicated in its annual reports, on 15 August 2006 the Commission wrote to the Service expressing strong support for this very controversial proposal. On 10 October 2008 the Service published a final rule (73 Fed. Reg. 60173) to implement ten seasonal management areas within which large ships were to be restricted to speeds of 10 knots or less beginning on 9 December 2008. However, to gain necessary approval, the agency had to reduce the size of some management areas and limit its time period to five years, during which the rule’s effectiveness would be assessed.
On 6 June 2013, as the five-year anniversary of the adopted rule approached, the Service proposed to amend the rule and eliminate its sunset provision, thereby extending the current restrictions indefinitely (78 Fed. Reg. 34024). Agency analyses of data collected over the first three years of the five-year effective period had indicated that sufficient information to assess effectiveness was not yet available and an uncertain amount of additional time would be needed to collect and analyze more data (Silber and Bettridge 2012). To help assess the rule’s effectiveness, the Commission initiated a study of right whale carcass discovery rates in and near the seasonal management areas to determine if the rates of vessel-related deaths had changed since the rule went into effect (Laist et al. 2014). The analysis found that no vessel-related right whale deaths had been found within 45 nautical miles of any established seasonal management area during their effective time frames since the rules had gone into effect in December 2008. This was a statistically significant reduction compared to 18 years of pre-rule carcass discovery rates and was twice as long as the longest previous period without discovery of a ship strike carcass within those areas. On 5 August 2013 the Commission wrote to the Fisheries Service in support of the proposed rule extension and provided preliminary results of its study. In the Commission’s view, the speed restrictions seemed to be having their intended effect.
On 9 December 2013 the Service adopted a final rule extending ship speed restrictions indefinitely (78 Fed. Reg. 73726). At the same time, however, the Service noted that it would consider a recommended change in the rule submitted by the American Pilots Association to be a petition for new rulemaking to exempt all federally-maintained dredged channels between New York and Florida from the speed restrictions on the grounds that using speeds of 10 knots or less reduced vessel manoeuvrability and was therefore unsafe. On 30 January 2014 the Service requested comments on this recommended rulemaking (79 Fed. Reg. 4883) and on 4 March 2014 the Commission responded with a recommendation that the petition be denied. In part the Commission noted that existing rules already allowed vessels to use speeds above the 10 knots in regulated areas if the vessel captain believed conditions required it and recorded the reasons in the vessel log. The Commission also noted that because the percentage of vessels using dredged channels was likely as great before as after the rule went into effect, it was probable that most pre-speed restriction deaths due to strikes by large ships had occurred within those channels. Therefore exempting such channels would undermine the rule’s effectiveness.
Entanglement in Fishing Gear
As noted in past Commission annual reports, the National Marine Fisheries Service has adopted numerous regulations since the late 1990s as part of an Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan to reduce entanglement-related deaths of right whales. Most of those deaths are believed to be caused by lines associated with lobster traps and gillnets. To date, there is no evidence those regulations have been effective. In fact, right whale deaths attributed to fishing gear appear have increased substantially since rulemaking efforts began. Whereas 13 entanglement-related deaths were documented from 2001 to 2013, only three were documented between 1988 and 2000. veral right whales also have disappeared from photo-identification records after being seen badly entangled or with severe entanglement wounds and in many cases the cause of death cannot be determined because of degraded carcass condition or a lack of opportunity to carefully examine carcasses (e.g., carcasses seen only floating offshore). Thus it is likely that additional undocumented entanglement-related deaths have probably occurred.
On 16 July 2013 the Fisheries Service proposed a third major revision to its take reduction plan (78 Fed. Reg. 42654). This revision focused on reducing the risk of entanglement in the endlines of gear that extend from bottom-set traps and gillnets to surface marker buoys. To reduce such risk, the agency proposed to limit the number of endlines allowed and to establish three new seasonal closures for right whale habitat in Massachusetts Bay, on Jeffries Ledge off southern Maine and New Hampshire, and in the Jordan Basin in the central Gulf of Maine. On 5 August 2013 the Commission commented on the proposed revision. Although the Commission supported the proposed measures, it noted that numerous changes were needed. In part, it recommended that seasonal closures, which would apply only to trap fisheries, be expanded to include gillnets; that rules for gear marking be expanded to allow better identification of gear types and areas of origin from scraps of line removed from whales; and that rules be developed to require fishermen to record data on the number and location of deployed endlines. The Commission also noted that the model used to assess entanglement risks was inadequate and needed to be modified and applied before the rule was finalized, in order not to underestimate entanglement risk or overestimate the expected risk reduction.
On 27 June 2014 the Fisheries Service published a final rule to amend its take reduction plan (79 Fed. Reg. 36596). The Service rejected most of the Commission’s recommendations while significantly weakening the proposed action, apparently in response to fishing interests. The proposed closures for Jeffries Ledge and the Jordan Basin were not included in the final rule, areas exempted from any endline requirement were expanded, and nearshore lobstermen in Maine (who deploy perhaps half of all endlines set along the U.S. east coast) were exempted from gear marking requirements. The agency also deferred implementation of the rule for fishermen in New England until June 2015. Further, nothing was included in the final rule to address flaws in the model used to estimate entanglement risks and predict effectiveness of mitigation measures, nor was anything included to ensure that adequate data on endline usage would be recorded by fishermen.
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