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Mariner Alert: Whales May be Close to Shore, Go Slow

Two North Atlantic right whales. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Humpback breach.  Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen more whales hit by ships along the eastern US seaboard than is typical for this time of year. Three ship strikes, involving two sei whales and a fin whale, have occurred with vessels inbound to New York City, NY and Philadelphia, PA.

“It’s not clear why we’ve seen an increase in collisions, but it may be that whales are coming closer to shore following food,” said Mendy Garron, coordinator, Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. “At least one of the whales, which was necropsied (animal autopsy), had a full stomach.”

We want to remind mariners, the US has had measures in place to help reduce the threat of vessel collisions  along the east coast since 2008. The rule requires that vessels 65 feet or greater in length to travel at 10 knots or less in certain areas and during certain seasons where endangered North Atlantic right whales may be present. This rule applies within 20 nautical miles around all major ports in the mid-Atlantic. NOAA Fisheries researchers report approximately 80 percent of right whale sightings in the mid-Atlantic are within 20 nautical miles of shore. NOAA also established a program for temporary voluntary speed limits in other areas when an aggregation of three or more right whales is confirmed. There are a number of other steps mariners can take to help reduce the chances of hitting a right whale. Click here for details.

These ship speed restrictions were put in place primarily to protect the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered whales in the world. They also benefit other species that use coastal areas to migrate, feed, and nurse their young.

No known fatal ship strikes involving North Atlantic right whales have occurred in the management zones since the speed restrictions went into effect. Before the rule, 13 right whales died after being hit by vessels in the same areas during the 18-years prior to the restrictions taking effect (from 1990 to 2008).

The rule is part of NOAA’s broader ship strike reduction efforts. Existing protective actions include surveying whale aggregation areas by aircraft, extensive mariner outreach programs and mandatory ship reporting systems that provide advisories and information on right whale locations to mariners. 

NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Coast Guard, with input from the shipping industry, non-governmental organizations, and Florida and Georgia state resource management agencies also developed a computer-based interactive guide and training resource for mariners. It offers key educational information for ships operating along the North Atlantic coast in areas where North Atlantic right whales may be present. It includes crew training, information on right whales, recommended navigational actions when operating in right whale habitat, a guide to reporting sightings of dead or injured right whales, an informative video presentation, and a short follow-up quiz. Additionally, the program includes guidelines for compliance with the Mandatory Ship Reporting Systems, including an innovative, interactive report generation program.

For resources to help prevent whale collisions, click here.

NOAA Fisheries Compliance Guide for Ship Strike Reduction Rule

 Merchant Mariner Education Module

Contacts to report a ship strike: NOAA Fisheries regional stranding coordinators 

Interactive North Atlantic right whale sightings map

Maps of Seasonal Management Areas