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Throttling down to save whales

All vessels 65 feet or larger in the U.S. or entering or departing a U.S. port along the Eastern Seaboard will soon be subject to a 10-knot speed restriction at certain times of the year in certain locations for the protection of North Atlantic right whales, according to a press release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The restriction goes into effect Dec. 9.

These endangered species spend most of the year in coastal waters from Canada to Florida and collisions with vessels pose a significant threat to their population recovery. NOAA estimates two North Atlantic right whales are killed by ship strikes each year; their total numbers are estimated to be 300 to 400.

Mariners have reported severe damage to their vessels as a result of these collisions, including cracked hulls, damaged props and rudders.Passengers in small, fast-moving vessels have reportedly been thrown off their feet or even off the boat after hitting one of these large mammals.

Studies have shown the severity of injury to a whale and a vessel’s crew can be reduced when the speed is 10 knots or less. Nearly all accidents resulting in major damage occurred when the vessel was traveling above 10 knots, according to the report. NOAA has established vessel speed restrictions in times and locations that are also known as Seasonal Management Areas (SMAs).

U.S. government vessels are exempt from these restrictions, as well as state law enforcement vessels engaged in enforcement or search-and-rescue activities. Also, ships of 300 gross tons or greater entering two key right whale habitats (one in the Northeast and one in the Southeast) are required to report to a shore-based station. In return, the ships receive a message about right whales, their vulnerability to ship strikes, measures the ship can take to avoid the creatures, and locations of recent sightings through the Mandatory Ship Reporting systems (MSR) operated by NOAA and the Coast Guard.

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