Boaters are first line of defense to protect endangered right whales

How a Newport-based nonprofit helps promote sustainable practices on the water

September 7, 2023 4:59 am

A right whale demonstrates its signature v-shaped blow on Jan. 31, 2016, approximately 15 nautical miles off Amelia Island. (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit 15488)

NOAA’s proposed updates to the Vessel Speed Rule were incorrectly presented as a blanket closure of the open ocean to mariners by the saltwater recreational fishing industry in Rhode Island Current’s recent article (Can NOAA’s proposed speed reduction rule save the whales?, 8/7/2023). 

“We are all about public access to public places, but you can’t just shut it all down. …” Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is quoted as saying.

Can NOAA’s proposed speed reduction rule save the whales?

But the proposed changes to the Vessel Speed Rule do not close the ocean to boating — they update existing slow zones established to protect around 340 remaining critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from a top threat of boat strikes. These whales are at risk of boat strikes because they are dark in color and difficult to spot, swim slowly at the water’s surface, and lack a dorsal fin. At high speeds, collisions can be unavoidable, causing fatal results for North Atlantic right whales. 

While implementing speed limits on recreational boats may add some travel time to trips, these temporary slow zones do not prohibit fishing, boating, or other activities and still allow mariners to utilize the areas year-round. Almost all of these slow zones (except a smaller zone near Nantucket and Georges Bank that runs through the end of June) would not impact U.S. boaters between Memorial Day and Labor Day – the most popular boating months – as most of the whales are in Canada at those times.  

The original rule was created 15 years ago to protect North Atlantic right whales from a top threat of boat strikes, which can cause blunt-force trauma or cuts from propellers. Since then, the population has rapidly declined and shifted. Even with safeguards in place, there have been 16 documented boat strikes leading to death, serious injury, or sublethal injuries in U.S. and Canadian waters since 2017. But the true number of collisions is not known — it’s estimated that only one-third of North Atlantic right whale deaths are documented. 

 One whale can play “an outsized role in the recovery of this magnificent species,” as Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Janet Coit said in her remarks at the Ocean Summit last May at Fort Adams State Park during the Newport stopover of the Ocean Race; she also acknowledged that less than one whale per year can die due to human causes for the species to have a chance at recovery. The proposed changes will decrease the overall risk humans pose to North Atlantic right whales. 

Technology has been presented as a solution, but these whales cannot be tracked in real-time to mitigate the risk of ship strikes. Existing technology relies on detecting whale sounds, but the vocalizations of North Atlantic right whales are extremely variable. Most do not vocalize frequently during feeding or migrating, as compared to when they’re at the water’s surface, making true real-time tracking nearly impossible. The best course of action to prevent boat collisions with North Atlantic right whales is slowing boats down. Decreasing speeds to 10 knots is estimated to reduce a North Atlantic right whale’s risk of death from boat strikes by between 80% and 90%. 

The best course of action to prevent boat collisions with North Atlantic right whales is slowing boats down. Decreasing speeds to 10 knots is estimated to reduce a North Atlantic right whale’s risk of death from boat strikes by between 80% and 90%.

Based in Newport, Rhode Island, Sailors for the Sea Powered by Oceana has a unique opportunity to connect with boaters to protect the ocean they love. Our focus is to engage and educate the sailing and boating communities on responsible boating to preserve the marine environment. Boaters have a front-row seat to many of the challenges facing our oceans – which means they can also be in the first line of defense against those challenges.  

Sailors for the Sea’s Green Boating Guide 2023 offers guidance for pollution prevention and carbon footprint reduction, and wildlife and habitat protection. (Sailors for the Sea)

Through our Green Boating program, we help the community implement sustainable boating practices. The choices that boat owners make, from regular maintenance to supply purchases, impact everything from their marinas, waterways, and environment. Our Green Boating Guide empowers boaters to make small shifts with big impacts, including how to handle encounters with wildlife. One of the many joys of being on the water is seeing marine wildlife in their natural habitat — but no one wants their cruise to turn deadly. Sailors for the Sea helps boaters prioritize the health of the environment while still enjoying the beauty and bounty the ocean has to offer.  

Learning to mitigate our impact as boaters and tread more lightly on the environment protects marine resources not only for our current enjoyment but for future generations, as well. Strides towards sustainable practices on the water protect the marine environment and those that call it home, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. 

Increased protection for this species is vital to its future. NOAA must update the Vessel Speed Rule and slow boats capable of killing North Atlantic right whales before we lose them forever. 


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Emily Conklin
Emily Conklin

Emily Conklin is a marine biologist with a bachelor's degree in biology and French studies from Wheaton College and a Master of Science in marine biology from the Northeastern University Three Seas Program. Her career focus is on science communication and environmental education. She is passionate about engaging with the outdoors and ensuring ocean health for generations to come. She serves as program manager for Sailors for the Sea, overseeing the Clean Regattas and Skippers volunteer programs to activate sailors and boaters to become involved in sustainability and ocean advocacy. She lives in Newport.