Slow Down to Save Whales
Everyone knows speed kills. Speed limits in neighborhoods and school zones protect the safety of the community. But what if the government wanted to let those speed limits expire every few years? It would waste resources and threaten lives. Yet that’s exactly what the Obama administration is considering doing for a speed limit that has saved the lives of critically endangered whales.
In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service enacted seasonal speed limits on large ships along the U.S. east coast in areas of great risk to the endangered North Atlantic right whale, a species with only a few hundred animals left. Ships 65 feet or greater in length are required to slow to 10 knots (about 11 miles per hour) in the southeast from Florida through South Carolina, where the whales give birth during the winter. Ships are required to slow during the spring and early summer in the waters off New England, which are an important feeding area for mothers and newborns. From New York through South Carolina, ships are required to slow during the whales’ seasonal migration.
The restrictions were initially put in place for five years to study their effectiveness, and during that time they have had a great impact in saving whales’ lives. Although in previous years multiple whales have been killed in collisions—such as in 2003 when several pregnant right whales were slain by ships—scientific studies have confirmed that during the trial period there have been no deaths within 40 miles of any of the protected areas. None. Seasonal restrictions have worked, and the cost to the shipping industry is minor. The federal government has estimated it to be only 0.148 percent of ocean freight costs, a small price to pay for saving the remaining 450 right whales, whose population has long teetered on the brink of extinction.
Sadly, these protective regulations are slated to expire in just a couple weeks, on December 9. While NMFS proposed this summer to make the rule permanent, the shipping industry has refused to accept that slow speeds save lives, and is pressuring the White House for another “sunset” clause that would force the government to continually re-evaluate the life-saving aspects of the rule. The industry argues there are times that ships need to go faster for the safety of maneuvering—although the regulations already provide flexibility and allow ships to exceed the speed limit as long as they document the safety need.
The regulation has been effective in preventing whale deaths, and there’s no need to waste government resources revisiting it over and over again. The Obama administration should act immediately to make the current speed limits permanent and protect the few remaining North Atlantic right whales. When slowing down saves the whales, the administration should hurry up and finish the job.