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Boating speed restriction on Cape Cod extended due to continued presence of right whales

In this April 10, 2008, file photo, three right whale tails surfaced in Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown, Mass.
In this April 10, 2008, file photo, three right whale tails surfaced in Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown, Mass.Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

The seasonal speed restriction on small vessels in Cape Cod Bay was extended Friday through May 15, a result of the ongoing presence of right whales in the area, according to the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

The speed limit requires small vessels — defined as those under 65 feet — to not travel faster than 10 knots in the bay, the Division of Marine Fisheries said in a statement.

The speed limit is intended to protect right whales, which the statement notes are “highly susceptible to injury and death due to vessel collision,” and are classified as an endangered species, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A federal restriction imposes the same limit on vessels larger than 65 feet, also until May 15.

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At least 160 right whales — about 40 percent of the species’ known population — were spotted in the bay by the Center for Coastal Studies this week. The whales seen were “skim feeding at the surface or just below the surface,” the statement said. This “intense” feeding makes the whales more susceptible to injury as they are less likely to be easy to spot and become “somewhat oblivious.”

Ten mother/calf pairs have also been documented in the area, the statement said.

The area of Cape Cod Bay where the small vessel speed limit is imposed.
The area of Cape Cod Bay where the small vessel speed limit is imposed.Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries

The annual speed limit was set in place in 2019 and covers a specific portion of the bay — “waters south of 42° 08′ north latitude,” and ”those waters north of Cape Cod that are west of 70°10′ west longitude” — for the months of March and April, according to a 2019 statement from the Division of Marine Fisheries.

In April 2020, the Division took similar action — extending the speed limit through May 8 on April 27 to protect right whale calves, which were feeding, the Globe reported.

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The federal government is poised to issue new regulations to better protect North Atlantic right whales — considered one of the world’s most endangered large whale species — after a federal judge ruled the US government was in violation of the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect them better.

Just 356 North Atlantic right whales are believed to be alive, according to the New England Aquarium.

Material from previous Globe stories was used in this report. Charlie McKenna can be reached at charlie.mckenna@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @charliemckenna9.