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Endangered whales seen off Nantucket

Mariners asked to slow down

Mariners are being asked to slow down around Nantucket after eight endangered North Atlantic right whales were spotted near the island on Friday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued a voluntary vessel speed reduction zone until March 1, asking mariners to avoid the area or travel through at less than 10 knots, in an ­effort to protect the right whales, which number approximately 400.

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Maggie Mooney-Seus, a spokesman for NOAA fisheries, said this is the beginning of the season when right whales will be migrating through the area, traveling from their nursery grounds off Georgia and Florida to their feeding ground in the Bay of Fundy in northern Maine and Canada.

“There are so few of these animals left that we take extra precautions,” Mooney-Seus said. “And it’s an animal that puts itself in harm’s way ­because it spends a lot of time at the surface and comes close to shore, increasing the risk of boat collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. They have so many factors against their recovery, but in spite of that, the population has shown a modest increase the last couple of years.”

To protect the whales from collisions, shipping lanes have been rerouted through the years, and there are seasonal 10-knot speed restrictions in place along the East Coast during times when the whales are known to be passing through. The speed restriction around Nantucket is voluntary, rather than mandatory.

Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium, said that such temporary restrictions are an important tool. “There are principal habitats, and we have warnings there, but the ocean is pretty fluid,” he said.

It has already been an ­unusual year for right whales in the Northeast. Last month, a mother and calf were spotted off Plymouth.

It is rare to see a calf in the cold waters this early in the year, said Mooney-Seus, and it is believed the pair were taking refuge in the warmer water around a power plant.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.

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