The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency responsible for protecting the endangered North Atlantic right whale, has issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) to “Implement the Vessel Operational Measures to Reduce Ship Strikes to the North Atlantic Right Whale.” The FEIS presents six possible actions.
Of the six potential actions, NOAA has identified the agency’s preferred action. The NOAA plan would establish seasonal speed limits of 10 knots (11.5 miles/hour) for non-federal vessels 65 feet and greater in length in areas deemed significant to the species including summer feeding grounds in the northeast US, winter calving areas in the southeast, and migration routes along the mid-Atlantic coast. The speed reduction zones would include the entire designated critical habitat in the northeast; a portion of the southeast critical habitat, a migration region designated as within 20 nautical miles (37 km) of the coast in the southern mid-Atlantic, and additional speed zones at major port entrances between Boston, MA to Jacksonville, FL. The proposed alternative also calls for voluntary speed reduction in dynamic management areas (zones where groups of three or more right whales have been recently spotted) and recommends the use of shipping routes that minimize the co-occurrence of vessels and whales.
Current federal regulations prohibit coming within 500 yards of individual right whales, but this measure alone has been inadequate in reducing ship mortalities, which is the top non-natural cause of death in this species. Research suggests that losing as few as two reproductive females per year to ship strikes could negatively impact the population size. The current number of North Atlantic right whales is estimated to be near 300 individuals.
NOAA is accepting public comments on the FEIS through 29 September 2008. Comments should be submitted to David Cottingham at ShipStrike.EIS@noaa.gov.
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