Slow Down: This Whale Needs the Right of Way

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BRISTOL, R.I. — The 33-foot fiberglass replica at the Audobon center on Hope Street might be the closest the North Atlantic right whale gets to Rhode Island this time of year. The endangered whale — fewer than 500 exist — is the focus of a new international and local campaign to keep a regulation known as Right Whale Ship Strike Reduction Rule (pdf) from expiring at the end of 2013.

A recent right whale seminar at the Audobon Society of Rhode Island explained how pollution, collisions with ships and entanglements with fishing gear have been the biggest killers of these giant sea mammals. Before the age of whaling, some 10,000 North Atlantic right whales roamed offshore from Nova Scotia to Florida, according to Anne DiMonti, director of the Audbon's local center. But even with the end of commercial whaling, unintentional deaths caused by human activity in right whale habitat have kept the birth rate barely exceeding the rate at which they are dying off, she said.

"Most of the area is protected, but it's not helping," DiMonti said.

North Atlantic right whale pass Rhode Island in early spring on their way to feeding and breeding grounds off Cape Cod and Canada. Occasionally, the whales visit local coastal areas. In 2010, a group of right whales was spotted in waters between Newport and Block Island, as well as off Misquamicut in Westerly.

Right whales are slow swimmers and spend much of their time at shallow depths within a few miles of land, making them prone to encounters with fishing nets and boats. States such as Massachusetts and Maine have helped reduce whale entanglements through programs that allow fishermen to replace dangerous floating lines with sinking lines.

But the controversial ship strike rule challenges the much bigger and more powerful shipping industry.

Since December 2008, the ship strike rule requires cargo vessels, ferries and cruise ships 65 feet or longer to cut their speed to 10 knots when entering the whale's management and feeding areas. The law has been highly effective, cutting the whale's mortality rate by 71 percent, DiMonti said.

Much of the shipping industry, however, doesn't like that the speed limit covers areas close to major ports, where most collisions occur. Adding travel time to shipping, of course, costs money — about $112 million over five years, less than 1 percent of shipping revenue, a federal study estimated. Opponents of the rule had a major ally in delaying the implementation of the regulation in former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose Office of Domestic Policy was accused of watering down the terms once they were announced.

Nevertheless, hefty speeding fines have been assessed by the Coast Guard (none in the Rhode Island zone), and the regulations are generally favored by environmental organizations and the scientific community.

University of Rhode Island marine scientist Robert D. Kenney said slow speed zones have been effective in reducing whale kills. He hopes that the ship strike rule is extended another five years so that the data can be definitive on either side of the issue.

But it's hard to deny, he said, that cargo ships in particular need to change their practices. "Something has to be done to mitigate the the deaths of right whales from ships," Kenney said.

Kenney has studied whales for 30 years and through URI's oceanography program runs the research database for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. His latest data indicates that the North Atlantic right whale population is increasing by some 2 percent. A growth rate of at least 7 percent, he said, is needed for the endangered whale to he headed for recovery. But at least fewer appear to be getting killed by ships. "It's a sign of hope," he said.

To watch a brief video of a North Atlantic right whale injured by a ship strike, click here.