NOAA 99-047
Contact: Scott Smullen


BOSTON -- U.S. Commerce and Transportation Secretaries William M. Daley and Rodney E. Slater teamed with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and shipping groups today to announce a new program designed to help prevent collisions between commercial ships and the world's most endangered whale species.

Starting July 1, large ships entering two important feeding and nursing grounds of the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale will employ new efforts to save the last 300 whales through a mandatory call-in system that alerts vessel captains to nearby right whale movements and gives collision avoidance procedures. The mandatory ship reporting system will run year-round in a 6,700 square mile feeding area off of Cape Cod, Mass., that includes all 842 square miles of NOAA's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and from Nov. 15 through April 15 in a 2,500 square mile nursery area near the Georgia/Florida border.

"Today, we take a step to ensure the survival of these majestic but endangered creatures. Our action demonstrates that, working in partnership with industry and the conservation community, we can restore and protect our precious oceans and the magnificent diversity of life they sustain," said President Bill Clinton.

In April 1998, President Clinton authorized the U.S. government to seek international approval of the mandatory ship reporting system by the United Nation's International Maritime Organization (IMO). The IMO voted unanimously in December 1998 for implementation of the system by July 1, 1999. The system was developed over a two-year period by the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Transportation Department's U.S. Coast Guard, with technical assistance from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. It was built and implemented by Performance Engineering Corporation, a high-tech firm headquartered in Fairfax, Va.

"The ship reporting system is essential to the survival of the endangered right whale. This conservation tool will significantly improve protection for these slow-moving whales, and give mariners important information to avoid right whales that may be found in shipping lanes near East Coast ports," Secretary Daley said. "This effort reflects an innovative partnership needed to develop news ways to address this problem, and will complement other ongoing measures being taken to help recover the species."

Secretary Slater said, "Because these whales do not recognize or avoid the hazards our shipping poses to them, we must take special measures to avoid injuring these rare creatures. This reporting system demonstrates President Clinton's and Vice President Gore's leadership in establishing partnerships between the government, environmental organizations and industry to protect our natural environment."

"IFAW is delighted to be working with the Departments of Commerce and Transportation on this vital initiative. A whale once hunted to the brink of extinction is safer today because of this partnership. Together we are making a difference for these critically endangered animals," said Fred O'Regan, president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

For unexplained reasons, right whales either do not detect oncoming ships, or do not perceive them as threats and do not move to avoid collisions. Ship strikes account for almost 90 percent of known, human-caused right whale deaths, with about two fatal collisions occurring each year. Under the ship reporting system, all commercial ships 300 gross tons and greater that enter the two areas will contact a Coast Guard-operated shore station to report course, speed, location, destination and route. In return, a ship will receive the latest information about right whale sightings and avoidance procedures that may prevent a collision. The information will be transmitted in minutes by satellite to the ship's bridge computer. The reporting system will affect no other aspect of vessel operations and there is no cost to the mariner.

In addition, officials expect the ship reporting system to yield data on the number of ships and the routes taken through right whale habitat that will be useful in identifying other possible measures to reduce future ship strikes. The entire program will be reviewed in three to five years to assess its effectiveness, and to introduce advances in ship communication technologies that have become available.

Legislation that provided the Coast Guard with the authority to implement the system came from an effort spearheaded by Congressman William Delahunt (Mass). NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, the Coast Guard and IFAW equally shared the funding for system development and implementation. Ongoing communication costs will be shared by the Coast Guard and the Fisheries Service.

NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program and Fisheries Service and the Coast Guard have taken several steps to protect right whales, including establishing federally designated critical habitats and updating nautical charts to show right whale habitat, as well as modifying other navigational publications and providing educational materials. For example, an aircraft survey system, jointly funded by the Fisheries Service, the Coast Guard and the state of Massachusetts, has been implemented off Massachusetts for the past two years in cooperation with the state. Biologists in boats and aircraft go out several times a week to survey waters that are shipping lanes for commercial traffic and feeding grounds for right whales. When they locate right whales, the Fisheries Service-led teams forward the information to the Coast Guard so whale alerts can be broadcast to mariners via radio, faxes and Internet postings.

While ship strikes are known to kill individuals of nearly every species of large whale, right whales appear especially susceptible. Their feeding and calving areas and migratory corridors are near several designated shipping lanes. Right whales also spend much of their time at the surface, feeding, resting, mating and nursing. Particularly vulnerable are calves, which must remain near the surface due to their undeveloped diving capabilities. At the surface, right whales appear focused on what they are doing and make little effort to move from the path of oncoming ships. Right whales are difficult to spot because of their dark color and low profile in the water. In some cases, ships may hit right whales without ever knowing a collision occurred.

The Northern Atlantic right whale was listed as endangered throughout its range in 1970. Several thousand right whales once existed in the North Atlantic Ocean. Years of commercial whale hunting at the turn of the century severely depleted the stocks. Whalers considered the animal the "right whale" to hunt because they were slow moving, migrated close to shore, and stayed afloat after being killed. Today, despite more than 60 years of protection, right whales have not fully recovered.

The northern right whale is a medium-sized baleen whale. Adults are 45 to 55 feet long. Distinctive features include: lack of a dorsal fin, a large head, narrow upper jaw, and a strongly bowed lower jaw. Right whales reach sexual maturity at five to nine years, with females giving birth to a calf every three to five years. Calving occurs in the winter along the southeast coast of the United States. Calves nurse for at least nine months.