Speeding ships threaten extinction of North Atlantic right whales, study warns

Ships traveling around the ports of New Jersey and New York were the worst speed violators

By: - October 19, 2023 3:27 pm

A dead 20-foot Minke whale was found floating in a Middletown marina on Oct. 18, 2023. The Brigantine-based Marine Mammal Stranding Center staff removed the whale on Oct. 19, 2023, and will do a necropsy to determine its cause of death. (Photo courtesy of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center)

A new study blames a spike in deaths of North Atlantic right whales largely on strikes by speeding cargo ships and other large boats, with the ports of New Jersey and New York drawing the most slow-zone scofflaws along the Atlantic Coast.

Researchers from Oceana, the largest international advocacy group dedicated to ocean conservation, found that 84% of boats 65 feet or longer sped through mandatory seasonal slow zones correlated to whale migration and feeding patterns over a recent two-year period, while 82% sped in voluntary, temporary slow zones triggered by whale sightings.

If left unchecked, the boat strikes could lead to the extinction of the species, of which only about 340 remain, Oceana warned in a study released Thursday. Thirty-six North Atlantic right whale deaths and 85 injuries have been recorded on the East Coast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration since 2017, with 12 of the deaths attributed to vessel strikes, although marine deaths are underreported because most never wash ashore.

“Time and time again we see what happens when speeding boats and right whales collide,” Gib Brogan, Oceana’s campaign director, said in a statement. “Even one human-caused death is too many for this population to sustain. If NOAA wants to save this species from extinction, ships must slow down when these whales are present, and speeding boats must be held accountable. Time is of the essence before North Atlantic right whales reach the point of no return.”

The group is calling for increased enforcement and stronger safeguards, such as making slow zones mandatory when whales are detected and requiring smaller boats to follow slow-zone speed limits, too.

Boat collisions and entanglements in fishing gear are the top killers of North Atlantic right whales, which are slow swimmers that prefer surface waters and typically can’t move out of an oncoming boat’s path fast enough, according to Oceana. Whales hit by vessels get injured or die from blunt-force trauma or propeller cuts, and reducing a ship’s speed can cut a whale’s risk of being killed by up to 90%, the group says.

NOAA last year proposed updating vessel speed regulations it first issued to protect whales in 2008, promising to adopt a final rule by the end of this year. The new rule would make all slow-zone speed limits mandatory, apply them to boats 35 feet and up, and update the timing and location of seasonal slow zones to reflect the current patterns of North Atlantic right whales. In the ports of New Jersey and New York and the Delaware Bay entrance in South Jersey, those slow zones are now in effect from November through April.

Study findings

Oceana researchers examined self-reported boat speeds and location data from November 2020 through July 2022 in both mandatory and voluntary speed zones set by NOAA. Ship speeds are limited to 10 knots in those zones, and almost 8,700 vessels made almost 100,000 trips through at least one mandatory slow zone over both seasons.

Ships traveling around the ports of New Jersey and New York were the worst speed violators, with an average of 87% of boats breaking mandatory slow-zone limits from November 2021 through July 2022, according to the study. Boats around the Delaware Bay entrance were the fifth highest offenders along the East Coast, with an average of 68% disobeying speed limits.

In every slow zone along the coast, researchers found some vessels traveling more than three times the speed limit. Forty percent of all speedsters were cargo vessels, the study found.

(Chart courtesy of Oceana)

In New Jersey, whale deaths have been a lightning rod in the Murphy administration’s embrace of offshore wind as a means of advancing its 100%-clean-energy goal by 2035.

Critics have blamed offshore wind development for NOAA-declared “unusual mortality events” for North Atlantic right whales, humpbacks, Minkes, gray whales, and other species that have increasingly washed up dead along the coastline. Scientists have found no link to wind development, though, and no turbines have yet been built, with the first project off New Jersey’s coastline still three years away.

Cindy Zipf is executive director of Clean Ocean Action, a Long Branch-based group that has voiced concerns about offshore wind’s impact on marine life.

Because NOAA identifies noise and vessel traffic associated with offshore wind development as risky for marine mammals, Zipf said, her group “considers it plausible” that the vessels doing pre-construction work for offshore wind, along with the seismic and sonar noise they create, could be the culprit of some boat strikes.

“Though the study focuses on North Atlantic right whale as it is teetering on the edge of extinction,  all whales are vulnerable to ship strikes, which can be caused by any type of vessels,” Zipf said. “COA has called for, and continues to stand by the need for, an investigation into the unprecedented whale and dolphin deaths in the New York/New Jersey region.”

Oceana’s study came out one day after a dead 20-foot Minke whale was found floating at the Leonardo State Marina in Middletown, marking the 15th whale stranding in New Jersey this year, according to data from the Brigantine-based Marine Mammal Stranding Center. None of the stranded whales recorded in New Jersey in the past three years have been North Atlantic right whales.

The center’s staff removed the Minke whale from the surf Thursday and will necropsy it to determine its cause of death.

(Chart courtesy of Marine Mammal Stranding Center)

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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