Speeding vessels off Georgia coast imperiling whales, report finds

A dead North Atlantic right whale discovered at Virginia Beach in February was found to have “a catastrophic blunt force traumatic injury” consistent with being struck by a vessel, investigators said. Before its death, the last confirmed sighting of “Right Whale 3343” was off the Georgia coast on Dec. 26, 2022.

Credit: Virginia Aquarium, taken under NOAA permit #24359

Credit: Virginia Aquarium, taken under NOAA permit #24359

A dead North Atlantic right whale discovered at Virginia Beach in February was found to have “a catastrophic blunt force traumatic injury” consistent with being struck by a vessel, investigators said. Before its death, the last confirmed sighting of “Right Whale 3343” was off the Georgia coast on Dec. 26, 2022.

Large vessels operating off the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas – including ships using the ports of Savannah and Brunswick – are flouting seasonal speed limits created to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

A recently released report by the conservation organization Oceana found that 85% of watercraft at least 65 feet in length exceeded the maximum of 10 knots (11.5 mph) in a designated protective area stretching from Brunswick to Wilmington, North Carolina.

The National Marine Fisheries Service issued the speed regulations in 2008 when it created whale conservation zones for large vessels up and down the East Coast. The limits run from mid-November to mid-June.

That period is considered calving season, when right whales from as far away as Canada travel to the shallow waters off southern Georgia and northern Florida to birth their young.

The first mother and calf pair of this season were spotted last month off the coast of South Carolina.

For its report, Oceana compiled data collected by Global Fishing Watch, a technology platform that uses high-frequency radio signals to identify vessels and track their movement.

Large boats and ships in the Brunswick-to-Wilmington management area were among the worst of the serial speed scofflaws.

From November 2020 to June 2021, 85.1% of those vessels violated the limits, Oceana found. The percentage dropped slightly for the 2021-2022 season, to 83.9%.

Only a management area covering the ports of New York and New Jersey had a higher rate of speeders, but not by much (85.4% in 2020-2021 and 87.1% the following season).

From 2017 to 2020, the Georgia-to-North Carolina zone averaged 87.5% non-compliance, the worst among the 10 management areas.

“The lack of compliance with the speed limits off Georgia and the Southeast U.S. is alarming and presents a clear threat to the future of North Atlantic right whales,” Gib Brogan, campaign director at Oceana, wrote in an email response to the Savannah Morning News. “The warm waters of this area are especially important for … right whales because it’s their calving grounds – where mothers travel to give birth and nurse their calves. Mothers and calves spend a lot of time at the water’s surface where they are especially vulnerable to boat strikes.”

While Oceana did not link speeders with individual ports, 40% of violations involved commercial cargo ships. With overall violation percentages in the mid-80s for the area including northern Georgia, a significant number of ships traveling to and from the ports of Savannah and Brunswick would be among them.

In 2022, a 400-foot Portuguese-flagged chemical and oil tanker reached a top speed of 35.5 knots as it sped through the management area, according to Oceana’s analysis. That’s three-and-a-half times the allowable limit.

A troubled past and improbable recovery

North Atlantic right whales – which can live up to 70 years, reach lengths of more than 50 feet and weigh as much as 70 tons – have been protected for a half-century under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The species’ precarious odds of survival are evident in its name.

They were considered the “right” whales to hunt because they floated after they were killed, making it easier to harvest valuable blubber.

The Atlantic teemed with as many as 21,000 right whales before their population was decimated by commercial whaling in the late 19th century, driving their numbers down to an estimated 100.

There are believed to be about 340 remaining, including fewer than 70 reproducing females.

Collisions with boats continue to be one of their primary threats.

In the last six years alone, there have been a dozen confirmed North Atlantic right whale fatalities from vessel strikes, and 36 deaths have been recorded overall, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries division. However, NOAA estimates that that only one-third of right whale deaths are observed.

Just a dozen calves were identified during the 2022-2023 season, but not all of them survived.

In January 2023, a male calf no more than a few weeks old was spotted underweight and in relatively poor health near Morehead City, North Carolina, and did not survive. It was unclear why the mother separated from the calf.

While three years is considered a healthy interval between calves, North Atlantic right whales now give birth once every seven to 10 years, according to NOAA.

In 2022, there were no known first-time mothers, which confirmed research by the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium that found fewer females are becoming reproductively active.

Other recent studies have led scientists to suspect that “chronic stress” from human activity such as vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing nets may be causing the slowdown, Oceana noted.

NOAA estimates that about 50 births annually for many years would be needed to stop the decline and allow for recovery.

“The only solution is to significantly reduce human-caused mortality and injuries, as well as stressors on reproduction,” the agency says.

Climate change also is a growing threat, as warming ocean waters lure the plankton right whales feed on into new areas with fewer regulatory protections.

‘Lack of enforcement drives a lack of compliance’

NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard are responsible for investigating, enforcing and issuing penalties for violations of the speed regulations.

Enforcement measures include written warnings, educational letters and fines. However, violators are seldom sanctioned. During the 2021-2022 season, 46 fines were issued for speeding in the 10 management zones.

“(That’s) a stark contrast to the thousands of vessels found speeding in our analysis over a similar time frame,” Oceana said in its report. “The lack of enforcement drives a lack of compliance, but this is a solvable problem.”

The organization recommends that the National Marine Fisheries Service expand right whale protections and ensure that existing regulations are enforced, including by tracking vessels with the same technology Oceana used to identify violators.

“We can save North Atlantic right whales, but to do so, NOAA needs to protect the whales from all threats,” Oceana’s Brogan said. “The best way to do this in the Southeast is to slow boat traffic and let the mothers and calves swim safely. NOAA needs to approve its proposed updates to the current speed rules and ensure that they are effectively enforced.”

That change would involve subjecting any craft of at least 35 feet to the 10-knot speed limit in management zones.

A spokesman for the Georgia Ports Authority did not respond to a request for comment.

Speeding non-cargo watercraft also have been an issue in the management area that includes northern Georgia.

In 2022, a large passenger vessel was observed speeding at three times the allowable limit 22 miles from the Port of Savannah and again 14 miles from the Port of Brunswick, according to Oceana. In fact, the vessel exceeded 28 knots for three consecutive days.

An 85-foot pole-and-line fishing boat sped through the Brunswick-to-Wilmington zone two straight days in November 2021, then did it for three consecutive days in the same week the following year.

Another large fishing vessel topped 25 knots for three straight days in the conservation area in 2021.

An eighth calf for ‘Juno’; activity off Georgia coast

The first North Atlantic right whale mom and calf of the 2023-2024 season was spotted last month about six miles off the coast of Beaufort, South Carolina, during a daily monitoring flight by researchers from Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute.

They identified the mother as “Juno,” who is estimated to be 38 years old.

It is Juno’s eighth documented birth, according to CMARI.

Seven right whales also were observed recently in Southeastern waters, including a pair of adults about seven nautical miles east of the Savannah buoy marker on Nov. 18, said CMARI North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation Project Manager Melanie White.

Aerial spotters located a second adult pair about nine nautical miles off Sea Island.

John Deem covers climate change and the environment in coastal Georgia. He can be reached at jdeem@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Speeding vessels off Georgia coast imperiling whales, report finds


Today’s story comes from our partner, Savannah Morning News. Savannah Morning News provides daily news coverage on Coastal Georgia. Visit them at savannahnow.com or on Twitter @SavannahNow.

If you have any feedback or questions about our partnerships, you can contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams via email at nicole.williams@ajc.com.