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'Bleak picture': Majority of boats speed in slow zones designed to protect right whales

Two North Atlantic right whales, Sagamore and #3992, stick their heads out of the water.
New England Aquarium
Two North Atlantic right whales, Sagamore and #3992, stick their heads out of the water.

More than half of all large boats traveling through Cape Cod Bay failed to comply with speed limits designed to protect critically endangered right whales, according to a new report from Oceana.

The marine conservation group found that even fewer boats in the region are complying with speed limits than two years ago, when the first report was released.

“One of the most alarming things we saw in Cape Cod Bay was that there was a whale watch boat that was routinely violating the speed limit,” said Gib Brogan, campaign director at Oceana. “That a boat that is dedicated to whales and relies on healthy whale populations [was] going across the Cape Cod Bay speeds zone at sometimes more than triple the speed limit is shocking and alarming.”

In the North Atlantic right whale population, about half of all recorded deaths are caused by collisions with boats.

Today, scientists estimate that the population stands around 350. But the report comes just days before federal regulators and the New England Aquarium are expected to release a new population estimate.

Local boats violated speed rules less often than boats elsewhere

The worst levels of compliance were in the ports of New York and New Jersey.

“In the Ports of New York and New Jersey, across the two years that we've most recently analyzed, 86% of the boats were speeding,” Brogan said. “And that is an area that is increasingly important for right whales.”

Oceana derived the data from Global Fishing Watch, and used self-reported boat speeds and location data from November 1, 2020, to July 31, 2022. It specifically analyzed boats 65 feet or larger.

Overall, Oceana analyzed boat speeds all along the east coast, and found about 84% boats failed to comply with mandatory speed limits.

Oceana found that ships flagged to the United States, Panama, Marshall Islands, Liberia, and China had the most violations, and 40% of the speeding ships were cargo vessels.

“Cape Cod Bay has one of the highest levels of compliance of any of the seasonal management areas up and down the East Coast,” he said. “But it's still a long way from the compliance rate that's going to give the right whales the protection that they need.”

New speed rules coming

Brogan said the same speed limits have been in place since 2008 leaving little excuse for boat captains.

“Until we get to near 100% compliance with these speed zones,” he said, “the whales are going to continue to be at risk and are likely to continue their decline.”

Right whale conservationists are calling on federal regulators to better enforce speed restrictions and set higher penalties for violators.

Updated speed rules that could force more boats to slow down in larger swaths of the ocean are expected to be released by the end of this year.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.