Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, August 6, 2020


Kristen Monsell, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 844-7137,
Regina Asmutis-Silvia, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, (508) 451-3853
Erica Fuller, Conservation Law Foundation, (508) 400-9080,
Jane Davenport, Defenders of Wildlife, (609) 240-4616,
Emily Ehrhorn, HSUS/HSLF, (202) 779-1814,

Vessel Speed Limits Sought to Protect Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales

WASHINGTON— Conservation groups filed a rulemaking petition today seeking additional ship-speed limits along the Atlantic coast to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. In June a baby right whale was found dead off the coast of New Jersey, with propeller wounds across its head, chest and tail.

The petition asks the National Marine Fisheries Service to expand the areas and times when its existing 10-knot rule applies and to make all vessel-speed restrictions mandatory, rather than voluntary, to avoid collisions that kill and injure right whales.

“What we are asking for are essentially school zones along our coast, areas where vessels have to slow down to keep boaters and whales safe without stopping traffic,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s North American office. “Ships slowing down saves whales, smaller vessels slowing down saves lives, everyone slowing down saves a species.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund and Whale and Dolphin Conservation filed the petition, which asks for expedited consideration because of the urgent need to protect this declining population.

“Slowing ships will speed up right whale recovery by avoiding deadly collisions where these whales gather. We need to protect them while they feed and raise their families,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Speed limits are a simple and effective way to prevent unnecessary deaths of these amazing whales.”

North Atlantic right whales are among the world’s most imperiled marine mammals, with only about 400 animals alive today. Thirty-one right whales have been found dead since 2017, and the Fisheries Service believes at least another 10 have died, or will die, from existing injuries.

The calf recently found off New Jersey bore signs that it had been run over by two different vessels. Another right whale calf was struck and seriously injured by a vessel earlier this year off the coast of Georgia and has not been seen again. Devastatingly, these were two out of only 10 baby whales born in the most recent calving season.

“Right whale recovery has been plagued by two major threats: entanglements and vessel strikes. In the Northeast, we’ve been addressing entanglement risks for several years,” said Erica Fuller, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “And now it’s time to address the risk of ship strikes. Preventing entanglements but not vessel strikes is like paying your mortgage but not your taxes. You need to do both if you want to keep your house.”

Just over half of the known or suspected causes of right whale deaths since 2017 have been attributed to vessel strikes, closely followed by entanglements in fishing gear.

The existing speed rule applies to ships 65 feet and longer and sets seasonal speed limits off Massachusetts, the mid-Atlantic, and the whale’s calving grounds in Georgia and Florida. It also establishes a voluntary dynamic management system whereby ships are asked, but not required, to slow to 10 knots or less when a group of three or more right whales is seen in an area.

“Since 2017 there have been three confirmed North Atlantic right whale deaths or serious injuries caused by vessel strikes,” said Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “Compounding this tragedy, all three were baby or juvenile right whales. We can’t save this species if we don’t protect its future.”

The groups are asking the agency to expand existing speed limits near New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Virginia further offshore and expand when the rule applies off Massachusetts. They’re also asking the agency to make the voluntary dynamic measures mandatory following several reports indicating that ships are not complying with voluntary measures.

“Rare as they are, we’ve been able to count on right whales being in our coastal waters seasonally each and every year. We need the National Marine Fisheries Service to act swiftly to protect them before they disappear,” said Sharon Young, senior strategist for marine issues for the Humane Society of the United States.

An agency review of the existing rule found that the agency should not only extend the rule but also amend it to implement necessary protections for this highly endangered species.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Conservation Law Foundation is a regional, nonprofit organization that protects New England’s environment for the benefit of all people. We use the law, science and the market to create solutions that preserve our natural resources, build healthy communities, and sustain a vibrant economy.

Defenders of Wildlife is a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native wild animals and plants in their natural communities.

WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, is the leading international charity dedicated solely to the worldwide conservation and welfare of all whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

The Humane Society Legislative Fund is a social welfare organization incorporated under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code and formed in 2004 as a separate lobbying affiliate of the Humane Society of the United States. The HSLF works to pass animal protection laws at the state and federal level, to educate the public about animal protection issues, and to support humane candidates for office.

Founded in 1954, the Humane Society of the United States and its affiliates around the globe fight the big fights to end suffering for all animals. Together with millions of supporters, the HSUS takes on puppy mills, factory farms, trophy hunts, animal testing and other cruel industries, and together with its affiliates, rescues and provides direct care for over 100,000 animals every year. The HSUS works on reforming corporate policy, improving and enforcing laws and elevating public awareness on animal issues.

center locations