I remember as a child walking through my father’s work complex as he guided me to the nests of several Canadian geese to see the newly hatched chicks. There were no sidewalks, so we walked on the road and along the grass. The speed limit signs read 20 miles per hour. Whether trying to encourage caution, or simply as an interesting scientific fact (he is an engineer after all), he told me that those specific speed limits are put in place to reduce the risk of death to people accidentally hit by passing cars.
In fact, by driving at speeds of 20 miles per hour or less in pedestrian areas we can reduce the probability of death from a car collision to less than 5 percent! Whereas at speeds of 30, 40, or 50 miles per hour the fatality rates increase to 40, 80 and almost 100 percent.
The logic is quite simple: Going slower is safer, for drivers and pedestrians alike.
The same is true for whales.
The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has done an analysis of the Ship Speed rule, which requires that all vessels of 65 feet or longer to slow down in key areas when right whales are present, and it showed that the cost to industry is minimal, and the benefit to right whales is great.
Yet, they have now opened up comments for consideration of a petition to exempt shipping channels for ports from Jacksonville, Florida to New York City. The ship speed rule, renewed with your support this past December, requires vessels slow down as they are entering these ports from November to April when right whales are migrating between their northern feeding grounds and southern calving grounds. Weakening of the rule in these locations will put mothers and their calves in grave danger.
The petitioners are requesting further exemption due to safety concerns as traveling at slow speeds can make navigation in certain sea conditions more difficult. Safety at sea is of utmost importance to IFAW as well. And, when the rule was created in 2008, it included an exemption, the “deviation clause”, for just such purposes allowing vessels to ignore the speed limit when poor sea conditions and slow speeds would otherwise force them to compromise safety and navigation.
For reducing ship strikes the solution is clear, move shipping lanes so whales and vessels don’t interact, or slow down. We’ve been successful in doing just that, moving the shipping lane through Stellwagen Bank and Boston harbor and implementing speed restrictions that have eliminated right whale collisions in management areas up and down the east coast. Further exemption is unnecessary for addressing these safety concerns and would defeat the purpose of the rule and weaken the impact achieved thus far.
Mariners want to help the whales just like we do, and IFAW and others have been working hard to make sure that they can do their jobs and protect whales at the same time. In 2012, IFAW along with Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and other partners developed Whale Alert, an app for iPads and iPhones with pop-up alerts to inform ship captains when they’ve entered a speed restricted area or locations with recently sighted right whales. This app in a sense provides a virtual speed limit sign for vessels, the goal being to make it easier to mariners to comply with these speed restrictions.
By putting on the breaks we can prevent unnecessary injuries and death of these endangered right whale mothers and calves. Help us prevent any weakening in this rule by sending a letter of support to NOAA asking they deny this petition for exemption. It’s the right thing for right whales.