Report: Right whale nearly extinct from vessel strikes, entanglement

Ga. officials oppose new rules that would broaden vessel speed limits

Credit: NOAA

Credit: NOAA

For years, marine mammal conservationists have known the North Atlantic right whale population was in decline because of vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Now, newly released population estimates show the already-endangered species is on the brink of extinction.

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) has released new data showing that this species of right whale — known in Georgia as the state marine mammal — is doomed unless the government and fishing industry adopt stricter, more protective rules.

The organization estimates there are a total of 340 North Atlantic right whales left worldwide, 10 fewer than the most recent population estimate by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA has proposed additional vessel speed limits, but Georgia Port Authority officials are opposed, fearing the lower speeds would contribute to economic strain and dangerous conditions for ships. NOAA is taking public comments on the updated rule until Monday.

The species has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1973, though its population numbers gradually recovered until 2010. Scientists are unsure about the cause for this period of recovery. Katie Wagner, a NOAA spokesperson, said it was likely a combination factors including adequate prey and protective measures.

North Atlantic right whales, which grow up to 52 feet in length, are one of three right whale species. The species also includes the North Pacific right whale, found in the North Pacific Ocean and the Southern right whale, found in the southern hemisphere.

Each fall, North Atlantic right whales migrate from New England and Canada to the warmer, coastal waters of Georgia and North Florida to have their calves.

The primary dangers to the species according to NOAA, are human interactions, specifically vessel strikes and fishing rope entanglements. Ropes attached to fishing traps on the sea floor cling vertically to buoys above and can wrap around whales that run in to them. An entangled whale can drown for lack of access to surface air or suffer from infections, loss of appendages or stress that affects their birth rate.

Experts from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) marine conservation team said entanglements have increased over the past decade and cutting the animals free is extraordinarily difficult.

A North Atlantic right whale named Snow Cone suffered chronic entanglement for more than 18 months. Sarah Sharpe, a rescue veterinarian for IFAW, said Snow Cone was recently spotted again with a new entanglement that Sharp said will “very likely end her life.”

When a whale is seriously injured or dies of unnatural causes, like entanglement or vessel strikes, it is considered an “unusual mortality event.” Since 2017, NOAA has documented 91 such events, though NOAA adds that only about one-third of right whale deaths are documented.

“These latest population numbers confirm that the species continues to teeter on the verge of functional extinction and current measures to save it are falling short,” Sharp said.

In an attempt to mitigate the threat, NOAA wants to amend current speed rules to include vessels 35 to 65 feet long. Currently, speed restrictions only apply to vessels 65 feet or longer. The updated rule also proposes creation of a mandatory 10-knot, or 11.5 mph, speed zone when right whales are detected outside designated seasonal management areas, or places where the whales have been known to congregate. Currently, speed zones outside of seasonal management areas are not mandatory.

Seasonal management areas are enforced Nov. 1 through April 30 in Savannah.

Georgia officials, including Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Griff Lynch, are among those opposing the proposed rules. Lynch has written U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo, saying that additional restrictions on vessel speed present “considerable life and safety concerns” and “will exacerbate congestion at American ports — resulting in detrimental effects on the nation’s economy.”

Lynch is asking that the proposed rule exempt cargo vessels and pilot boats within federal navigation channels and pilot boarding areas. Georgia’s two senators and entire congressional delegation have co-signed Lynch’s letter in support of these exemptions.

Ports Authority spokesman Edward Fulford said without these exemptions, crews of cargo vessels and pilot boats would “be forced to delay transit when weather and ocean conditions make it unsafe for slow-speed operations.”

Trey Thompson, president of the Savannah Pilots Association, said the design of pilot boats require the vessels to cruise at a minimum speed of 18-20 knots to maintain stability for passengers in rough water.

As for cargo vessels, Thompson said the ships present a large surface area for the wind and could be blown sideways traveling at slower speeds.

“I’m not for killing whales, they’re beautiful creatures,” Thompson said. “I love them, but we have to be smart about how we try to save them and we can’t just stop commerce for that purpose.”