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Large vessels failing to obey speed limits to protect endangered whales, report finds

In this March 28, 2018, file photo, a North Atlantic right whale fed on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth.
In this March 28, 2018, file photo, a North Atlantic right whale fed on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Nearly 90 percent of large vessels traveling in some conservation areas along the East Coast violated mandatory speed limits established to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, according to a new report.

The findings raised questions about the need for stricter enforcement of federal rules to protect right whales, whose numbers have fallen by about 25 percent over the past decade to roughly 360. Vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear have been the primary cause of death and serious injuries.

“Vessels are speeding, North Atlantic right whales are dying, and there’s not enough accountability,” said Whitney Webber, a campaign director at Oceana, an advocacy group, which released the report on Wednesday. “Oceana’s analysis shows that speeding vessels are rampant throughout North Atlantic right whales’ migration route, all along the East Coast, and in both mandatory and voluntary speed zones.”

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Between 2017 and 2020, the report found that nearly 90 percent of vessels 65 feet or larger failed to reduce their speeds to 10 knots or less in the required speed zones along the coast from Wilmington, N.C., to Brunswick, Ga., near the whales’ calving grounds. Nearly 80 percent of the vessels also failed to comply with speed limits along the coasts of New York and New Jersey, while more than half of large vessels failed to comply near the entrance of Delaware Bay.

Compliance with speed limits was slightly better off the coast of New England, according to the report, which analyzed self-reported vessel speeds and publicly available location data in right whale conservation areas.

In Cape Cod Bay, 45 percent of more than 650 large vessels violated the speed limits, the report found. In the Great South Channel south of Cape Cod, about 37 percent of nearly 1,300 large vessels allegedly broke the law.

Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which implemented the speed limits in 2008, said they had not read Oceana’s report and declined to comment on its findings. The report was embargoed, and Oceana didn’t allow the Globe to share it with NOAA in advance.

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“We look forward to reviewing it,” said Kate Goggin, a spokeswoman for NOAA. “Reducing the risk of vessel strikes to right whales is an agency priority.”

She noted the agency last year conducted its own assessment of the vessel speed rules. It found that more than 85 percent of large vessels observed speed limits in most of the protected areas, though fell to less than 25 percent near some ports in the Southeast. Overall compliance rose to more than 80 percent between 2018 and 2019, NOAA officials said.

Goggin said the agency is “evaluating our options for further action.”

“Vessel strikes contribute to the stalled recovery of the species, and NOAA Fisheries is committed to enhancing the effectiveness of our regulatory and nonregulatory vessel strike mitigation efforts,” she said.

Speed violations can result in civil penalties of up to about $54,000 for each violation, and criminal penalties of up to $200,000 and imprisonment for as much as a year.

It was unclear how many vessel operators included in the Oceana report were cited or fined for speed violations. Oceana found that two-thirds of the vessels that exceeded the speed limits operated under foreign flags, and that cargo vessels were the least compliant.

The report also found that 85 percent of large vessels failed to reduce their speeds in areas that NOAA designated for voluntary speed limits.

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Michael Moore, director of the Marine Mammal Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, urged regulators to step up enforcement.

“We know that there is an ongoing lethal vessel strike problem in US and Canadian waters,” he said. “What we don’t know is where and when the next event will occur. Management areas are modeled on prior knowledge of where risks are greatest. Our models have obviously failed. Therefore substantial, widespread, mandatory speed restrictions on all vessels, that are actually enforced through vessel tracking, are essential.”

Oceana urged the government to require all larger vessels to broadcast tracking signals continuously, increase enforcement, and require smaller vessels abide by the speed limits. They also urged government vessels, which are often exempt from the law, to abide by the speed limits.

“It’s clear that NOAA’s current rules and regulations are not working,” said Gib Brogan, a fisheries policy analyst at Oceana. “Until the government updates the current regulations, and speed zones are made mandatory and adequately enforced, North Atlantic right whales will continue to die on our watch.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.