Right Whales, Wrong Rules?

14 October 2008 By Louisa Beckett

North Atlantic right whales, which are relatively slow movers, soon won’t have to worry about motor yachts speeding through their pods. (Of course, in a close encounter between a 65-foot open yacht and a 60-ton right whale, we’re not sure which one would end up the loser.)

Starting in early December, new regulations will take effect that require vessels over 65 feet in length to reduce their speed to 10 knots within 20 nautical miles of many major U.S. East Coast ports. Temporary voluntary speed limits also will be established in other areas where two or three whales are spotted.

The new Ship Strike Reduction Rule issued by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) aims to protect the endangered right whales as they pass through East Coast shipping lanes along their annual migration routes by reducing their risk of collision with fast-moving ships. The new rule supplements existing measures intended to prevent the right whales from becoming entangled in commercial fishing gear.

Navy ships and law-enforcement vessels are exempted from the new regulation. Yachts and other recreational boats over 65 feet are not.

“All boats over 65 feet must obey the law regarding ship speeds, including pleasure boats, whale watching boats, etc. There are exceptions for government boats,” confirms Connie Barclay, director, Public Affairs (media relations), National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA.

The Ship Strike Reduction Rule affects the waters off Boston and New York, Block Island Sound and various ports along the Mid-Atlantic Coast from Norfolk, Virginia, as far south as Port Canaveral, Florida. Once it takes effect in December, the speed restriction will be in force during seasons when whales are expected to be present, which largely fall during the winter months.

Detailed maps of the areas covered by the new regulations, along with the specific time periods they will be in effect, are available at

The Ship Strike Reduction Rule includes a so-called “sunset provision” that will allow it to expire or be renewed after five years of evaluation and scientific research.

The North Atlantic right whale is on the United States endangered species list, with only 300 to 400 still in existence, according to NOAA. The whales are commonly sighted within 20 nautical miles from shore, where 83 percent of right whale sightings take place along the Mid-Atlantic coast.

“The ship strike rule, based on science, is a major addition to NOAA’s arsenal of protections for this endangered species,” said Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, and NOAA administrator.

NOAA says at least two whales are killed each year from injuries resulting from ship collisions.

Do you think reducing the speed of superyachts will help save whales? Is it really necessary to include ALL vessels 65-feet or longer in order to avoid collisions with whales?

Let us know. Leave your comments below.