Nearly two dozen North Atlantic right whales have been spotted swimming in the waters south of Nantucket, prompting federal authorities to ask large commercial fishing vessels to slow down in the area.
In a statement Friday, NOAA Fisheries said a “voluntary vessel speed restriction zone” had been established 30 nautical miles south of Nantucket “to protect an aggregation of 22 right whales sighted in this area” on Tuesday.
“Mariners are requested to route around this area or transit through it at 10 knots or less,” the statement said. The request will remain in effect through Feb. 5.
Meanwhile, mandatory speed restrictions are in effect on Cape Cod Bay through May 15, and in waters off Block Island, New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk, Va., through April 30, according to the statement.
The announcement comes after a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit earlier this month in US District Court in Washington, D.C., alleging that federal regulators must do more to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from getting tangled up in lobster gear.
The suit says entanglement in commercial fishing gear has been the “primary cause” of right whale deaths in recent years.
There were only about 455 right whales in 2016, and at least 17 died last year, “pushing the species even closer to the brink of extinction,” the 33-page civil complaint states. Many of the whales have been spotted off Cape Cod.
Jane P. Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit, said in an e-mail that Friday’s announcement from NOAA isn’t linked to the civil action.
“This is something the agency does under the ship strike/speed limit rule,” Davenport wrote in an e-mail. “Ordinary course of business. The only issues are that a) the temporary limit is voluntary and not mandatory and b) it only applies to vessels 65 feet and longer.”
In Friday’s statement, the NOAA reminded the public that “[a]pproaching a right whale closer than 500 yards is a violation of federal and state law.”
Boaters are urged to report all right whale sightings by calling 866-755-NOAA (6622).
The Right Whale Listening Network says on its website that taking it slow on the high seas could save a whale’s life.
“Traveling at lower speeds improves a whale’s chances of surviving a collision,” the site says. “It may also improve a ship crew’s opportunities for spotting and avoiding a whale and may give a whale more of a chance to get out of the way. NOAA encourages all vessels — not just tankers bound for the natural gas terminal — to check recent alerts and to slow to no more than 10 knots when near a recent right whale detection.”