NOAA 2001-R123
Contact: Teri Frady


The National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency of the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sponsored a draft report released today that urges establishment of regionally-specific speed and routing restrictions for ships to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from collisions. The draft report, which is available online, was compiled by a committee working with federally-mandated whale protection teams in the Northeast and Southeast United States.

"Ship strikes are a well-documented threat to these endangered whales," said Pat Kurkul, the Northeast Regional administrator for NOAA fisheries. "Two right whales have died this year with injuries indicating they were hit by ships. We'll look very closely at the committee's recommendations for ways to minimize this threat."

The draft report issued today calls for three types of measures: (1) routing of ships around observed whales; (2) speed restrictions on vessels operating in right whale habitats; and (3) mandatory shipping lanes when transiting through critical habitat areas. The draft report calls for different measures or combinations of measures in different East Coast waters, particularly in approaches to ports.

After a period of intense whaling in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the right whale was on the brink of extinction. Although whaling practices have ceased, right whales face serious risks from ship collisions and fishing gear entanglements. The North Atlantic right whale population is now estimated to be approximately 300 animals.

The Ship Strike Committee is one part of a multi-million dollar federal effort to recover North Atlantic right whales in U.S. waters. Actions NOAA fisheries has already taken in furthering this effort include restrictions on when, where and how fishing gear known to entangle the whales can be used; the creation of a whale sighting advisory system; research to make fishing gear whale-safe; research on the basic biology of right whales; and an active disentanglement network.

"Right whales feed, breed, bear calves, or migrate in waters off every port on the East Coast," said Bruce Russell, a consultant who co-chairs the Ship Strike Committee. "The measures the committee is recommending will provide these animals significant protection from the U.S.-Canadian border south to Port Canaveral, Fla."

To prepare this draft report, the committee held a series of open meetings with East Coast shipping industry representatives, federal and state agencies, conservation groups, and whale experts over the past 18 months.

"This has been a real partnership," Kurkul noted. "The shipping industry, the U.S. Coast Guard, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and many others have worked together to seek practical and effective measures to reduce the risk of ship strikes."

The draft report will be submitted to the Northeast and South Recovery
Plan Implementation Teams, which were established in 1994 by NOAA fisheries under the ESA to implement the Right Whale Recovery Plan. The teams are headed by NOAA and include port agents, shipping representatives, state and federal officials, and non-governmental groups. The teams' focus is reducing ship strikes and assessing habitat threats to North Atlantic right whales. The teams are scheduled to discuss the report recommendations and a final report will be submitted to NOAA Fisheries in September.

The draft report can be viewed at:
Go to "What's New."