To help protect the dwindling population of right whales, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has proposed lowering the maritime speed limit off the Georgia coast for a wider range of powered vessels.
Off the coast of Georgia and North Florida, a seasonal November 15th to April 15th speed limit of 10 miles per hour currently applies to vessels 65-feet and over. The changes would expand the limit to include most vessels over 35 feet in length.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species, according to NOAA. The area off the Georgia and Florida coast is a primary calving and nursery zone. The whales migrate along the east coast from the St. Lawrence seaway in Canada to the warmer southern waters. They give birth to their young and remain along the Georgia coast before returning north.
The latest preliminary estimates suggest there are fewer than 350 right whales remaining, with less than 100 reproductively active females, based on a NOAA press release. Vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, climate change and other threats all pose challenges to this imperiled species.
Right whales aren’t bearing enough calves to offset deaths from fishing rope entanglements and vessel strikes. The calf count for the endangered whales reached 14 this winter, when adult no. 3157 and her calf were spotted off Cumberland Island.
Since 2017, 57 new calves have been spotted, NOAA statistics indicate. In the same time, 53 whales have been documented dead or with serious, life-threatening injuries, putting extreme pressure on the dwindling species.
In addition to the speed changes, NOAA administers a Right Whale Slow Zones program. Under this program, NOAA Fisheries provides maps and coordinates to vessel operators indicating areas where right whales have been detected so they may take additional operating and evasive precautions.
NOAA is inviting public comment and input to the proposed regulations through Sept. 30. The agency also is hosting a webinar on Aug. 24, 6-7:30 pm edt. Advanced registration is required for participation.
According to Biologydictionary.com, The right whale or black whale refers to three species of large baleen whales. These large animals can live for over 70 years and grows to almost 70 feet long. In terms of sheer body mass, it is second only to the blue whale and bowhead whale in size.