Hundreds of boats were reportedly speeding through zones designed to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Virginia Beach area before a deadly boat strike last month.
Using the Ship Speed Watch tool, new analysis from Oceana, an organization that works to protect the whales, found that 106 of the more than 200 boats larger than 65 feet long that traveled through slow zones at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay from Feb. 1 through 11 were found to be speeding in mandatory slow zones.
Nearly seven out of ten boats traveled above the speed limit of 11.5 miles per hour, through either mandatory or voluntary slow zones, and one boat traveled as fast as 26.7 miles per hour – more than double the speed limit – within a mandatory slow zone.
Between Feb. 8 and 11, preceding the discovery of the dead whale, more than 75% of the boats did not comply with the mandatory or voluntary speed limits.
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“Speeding boats and slow swimming whales are a recipe for disaster, but a preventable one. Current vessel speed limits are ineffective and made worse by the fact that they aren’t even properly enforced,” Gib Brogan, campaign director at Oceana, said in a Friday statement.
“NOAA knows this and has a pending new regulation that would update the slow zones established to protect the North Atlantic right whale. NOAA must immediately issue the final vessel speed measures before more whales needlessly die,” he said, also specifically calling out Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and National Marine Fisheries Services Assistant Administrator Janet Coit. “These speed limits also need robust enforcement and accountability for those breaking the law.”
These findings come after NOAA said a 20-year-old male North Atlantic right whale was found dead in the surf on Virginia Beach.
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Following a necropsy examination, the agency said that experts had determined that the 43-foot-long whale had suffered a catastrophic blunt-force traumatic injury, with wounds consistent with a vessel strike.
“It is beyond frustrating and sad that any North Atlantic right whale had to die because of government inaction,” Brogan said. “Meanwhile, we continue to wait for our government to finalize its own proposal at a pace that feels like watching paint dry.”
The endangered North Atlantic right whales are approaching extinction. An Unusual Mortality Event was declared for North Atlantic right whales in 2017. Oceana said there are only around 340 of the endangered whales left in the world and asserted that the timeline of events preceding the whale’s death off Virginia Beach provides “further evidence that NOAA knew there were North Atlantic right whales swimming in danger and did nothing to protect them from boat strikes.”
The whales’ primary causes of the Unusual Mortality Event are entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes in both U.S. and Canadian waters.