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As endangered right whales make their way back to Florida waters, proposed federal slow-speed zones for ships off Florida and elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean continue to generate controversy.
NOAA and whale advocates said the slow zones reduce the risk of vessels killing the remaining few hundred whales and must be expanded. Maritime trade advocates countered that the slowdown could impact the world’s just-in-time delivery economy as many ship captains are under pressure to get to port as fast as possible.
Fewer than 350 North American right whales remain. There’s been recent good news — four live calves born this calving season — but that doesn’t stop fears that the species still remains at risk of extinction.
“North Atlantic right whales are dying faster than they can reproduce, largely due to human causes,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on its website.
Right whales have been undergoing what NOAA calls an Unusual Mortality Event since 2017. That resulted in more than one in five of the population being sick, injured or killed, the agency said. Researchers estimated fewer than 70 reproductively active females remain, and they produce fewer calves each year, threatening the species’ prospects of recovery.
Humans are still the leading cause of right whale deaths, federal biologists said, even though the whales have not been hunted commercially for more than 80 years. The primary threats to the whales are collisions with ships or boats and entanglements in fishing gear.
So as with manatees, NOAA said slowing down boats for right whales is a must to save one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals. The slowdown would give both captains and whales enough time to steer clear of one another. But also as with the manatee slow zones, going slow maddens captains whose livelihoods depend on getting to their destinations on time.
“I think that vessel speed rule is going to be huge,” said Julie Albert, the nonprofit Marine Resources Council’s right whale conservation program coordinator. “We still really don’t know what the final decision is going to be.”
NOAA proposed extending the boundaries of the slow zones and lowering the size of vessel that must comply with current vessel speed limits along the East Coast. Currently, only vessels 65 feet or longer are affected by the right whale speed zones under NOAA rules. But if approved by NOAA, most vessels 35 feet or longer would be required to go 10 knots or slower (about 11.5 mph) within active proposed seasonal speed zones to reduce the risk of deadly collisions with right whales.
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NOAA hasn’t announced the final specifics of the proposed new seasonal slow-speed zone, but the agency has included a zone that would run Nov. 15 to April 1, the same current timeframe that slows down vessels 65 feet and longer, but would expand the zone to extend from Port Canaveral out to sea about 5 nautical miles. The zone also would include a large swath along the mid-Atlantic Ocean. The new zone could take effect as soon as next year.
Right whale calving season begins in mid-November and runs through mid-April.
NOAA also is proposing the increase of the use of “ropeless” fishing gear that prevents whales from getting fatally wrapped up.
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Hearts broke in February 2021, when a sportfishing boat returning at night to St. Augustine Inlet hit and killed a baby right whale that later washed up on the beach.
But for some of those who float their 35-foot-or-longer boats in and out of Port Canaveral and other affected areas off Brevard County and elsewhere off Florida’s east coast, the proposed changes are too high a price to pay in lost safety and time: to the tune of almost 16,000 vessels affected and yearly costs of $46.2 million per year, 35% borne by the shipping industry, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration estimates.
On Dec. 6, the nonprofit Oceana filed an emergency rulemaking petition with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and Assistant Administrator of NOAA Fisheries Janet Coit demanding immediate action to save right whales, especially pregnant females, lactating mothers and calves during the current calving season. The whales are especially vulnerable to being hit by boats during calving season since the mothers and nursing calves spend more time swimming near the surface, increasing the possibility of boat strikes.
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Right whales are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Those who approach too close can face maximum penalties up to $100,000, a year in jail and confiscation of one’s vessel. Under the law, people need to stay at least 500 yards (or 5 football fields) from Right whale mothers and calves.
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No right whales have been reported in Brevard yet this migratory season, but Albert and others wait to see what this season will bring.
“I don’t know that anybody knows. We’re prepared for things to happen, every season is different,” Albert said.
Want to volunteer to spot endangered right whales?
The nonprofit Marine Resources Council will hold a free class at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 8 at the Barrier Island Center in Melbourne Beach to teach volunteers how to to spot endangered right whales