Ships and boats, the only ocean-bound entities that rival whales in size, can also kill the giants of the sea in an instant when they hurtle through whale habitat. In fact, collisions with ships are the one of the most frequent causes of premature death for several highly endangered marine mammals, including the North Atlantic right whale, the blue whale, and the Florida manatee. Each of these species is already so depleted that the loss of only a few individuals can mean the difference between recovery and being pushed further toward extinction. The numbers are staggering: In Florida, as many as 90 manatees a year are dying from boat strikes; at least six whales were killed by collisions with vessels in 2010, and more than 50 large whales have died off the California coast in the past decade; and in the Atlantic, half of all right whale deaths are caused by ship strikes. These deaths are all unnecessary. Collisions can be avoided by changing shipping routes to avoid areas where whales congregate, using existing technology to alert captains to nearby whales, and, most effectively, implementing mandatory speed limits for ships. Slowing ship traffic not only prevents lethal collisions with whales and other creatures; it also reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Center has been leading the charge to protect marine mammals from ship and boat strikes, with a particular focus on the mighty blue whale. Despite clear evidence that collisions are killing treasured marine species, federal officials have been slow to implement protective measures — as shown in our report "Collision Course: The Government's Failing System for Protecting Florida Manatees from Deadly Boat Strikes." So in 2007, after five blue whales died off the California coast, we petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to set speed limits in the Santa Barbara Channel off California. After a lackluster response, we sued the U.S. Coast Guard in 2008 to force the agency to assess how to better protect against ship strikes, and in November 2009, we and our allies — represented by the Environmental Defense Center — warned the Fisheries Service we'll sue if it continues its failure to protect the blue whale from ship strikes and other threats by implementing the species' federal recovery plan. When the Coast Guard announced plans to modify shipping-lane routes in the Santa Barbara Channel in April 2010, we called for the changes to ensure protection for imperiled whales and again requested speed limits for ships hurtling through whale habitat. And in 2011, with allies, we petitioned again for boat speed limits off California — this time for ships speeding through marine sanctuaries.

The Center is also working to protect species from ship strikes on both coasts. After our 2012 petition asking the federal government to keep the existing ship speed limits in North Atlantic right whale habitat — speed limits that would otherwise expire in December 2013 — the National Marine Fisheries Service did just that, just before the set expiration date. The rules require vessels 65 feet in length and greater to slow to 10 knots (about 11 miles per hour) in areas and at times when right whales are present.

Florida manatee photo © Carol Grant/