Report Finds Ships Speeding in Virginia Beach Slow Zones Before Right Whale’s Death Ship’s crew

Marine conservation organization Oceana has released a report showing a majority of ships have navigated through mandatory and voluntary slow zones off Virginia Beach designed to protect North Atlantic right whales from a deadly attack last month.

The 20-year-old male North Atlantic right whale was found dead in Virginia Beach on February 12, 2023. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) determined that the whale’s death was caused by blunt trauma related to a ship attack.

Oceana used a tool called Ship Speed ​​Watch, which relies on self-reported data to show ship locations, speeds and active voluntary and mandatory speed limit zones, to study ship speeds in slow zones near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in the weeks leading up to discovery of the whale.

The report found that 158 ​​of the more than 200 “boats” larger than 65 feet that passed through NOAA-established slow zones Feb. 1-11 exceeded the 10-knot speed limit. That’s almost 70%. A vessel was found traveling at 23.2 knots (26.7 MPH) within a designated mandatory slow zone – more than double the speed limit. About half of the vessels in the data set, 106 in total, were found speeding in mandatory slow zones.

The report also found that in the four days prior to the discovery of the dead whale, more than 75% of vessels (77) failed to comply with mandatory or voluntary speed limits.

Oceana’s report used the term “boats” to refer to all vessels longer than 65 feet, including merchant vessels, but the report did not break down the vessel type.

The North Atlantic Right Whale is an endangered species with only about 356 specimens remaining. Slow Zones are designed to protect them from ship attacks, which pose one of the greatest threats to their survival.

While NOAA last year proposed new ship speed regulations to address the threat, final protective measures are not expected until later this year. In December, Oceana submitted an urgent request to the Department of Commerce and NOAA for immediate action to protect North Atlantic right whale mothers and their newborn calves during the current calving season until the permanent rule is in place. However, NOAA ultimately denied the request, opting instead for less effective voluntary slow zones.

“Speedboats and slow-swimming whales are a recipe for disaster, but one that can be avoided,” said Gib Brogan, campaign director at Oceana. “Current speed limits on ships are ineffective and made worse by the fact that they are not even properly enforced. NOAA knows this and has a new regulation pending that would update the slow zones put in place to protect the North Atlantic right whale. NOAA must immediately release the final ship speed readings before more whales die unnecessarily.”

Oceana now accuses NOAA of failing to protect North Atlantic right whales from boat attacks despite being aware of their presence in the area.

“I wish we could say that the death of this North Atlantic right whale was a rarity and a fluke, but we predicted it would happen, and it did — under NOAA observation,” Brogan said. “Oceana has been sounding the alarm for months, urging NOAA to protect these critically endangered whales from boat attacks as they transit the East Coast during calving season. It is beyond frustrating and saddening that some right whale in the North Atlantic has had to die due to government inaction. In the meantime, we continue to wait for our government to finalize its own proposal at a pace that feels like watching paint dry.”

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