Nearly 90% of ships violated seasonal speed restrictions that protect North Atlantic right whales from Brunswick, Ga., to Wilmington, N.C., between November 2017 and July 2020, a report published this month by environmental group Oceana found.

This story also appeared in Georgia Public Broadcasting

Ship strikes are one of the leading causes of death for the critically endangered whales, along with entanglement in fishing gear.

In order to prevent strikes, vessels 65 feet or longer are restricted to 10 knots, or 11.5 miles per hour, in certain zones known as Seasonal Management Areas where the whales are known to be. One such area is Wilmington to Brunswick from Nov. 1 to April 30, when right whales migrate to the region to give birth.

“Here in the Southeast, this is incredibly important to us because these whales come here to have their calves every year,” said Paulita Bennett-Martin, Oceana’s field representative in Georgia. “If our boats cannot slow down to protect them, where will boats actually do that?”

Once hunted nearly to extinction by the 1950s, the right whale population rebounded later in the 20th century, only to fall again thanks to a number of factors, including ship strikes. Fewer than 400 remain and less than 100 of those are breeding females.

Oceana analyzed data from ships’ Automatic Identification Systems, or AIS, which transmits information including location and speed to satellites. The report looked at that data from November through July for three seasons.

The region between Wilmington and Brunswick had the worst record in the ocean, with an average of 87.5% noncompliance.

“We have to start to increase our ability for enforcement on the ocean in order to protect North Atlantic right whales because we’re just seeing too much speeding in our ocean,” Bennett-Martin said.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement enforce the speed restrictions, with fines ranging from several thousand dollars to over $50,000.

But only a fraction of violations are penalized.

Documents listing NOAA enforcement actions, available on the NOAA Office of General Counsel website, show 10 cases of fines levied for violating right whale speed restrictions from 2018 through 2020. There may be other cases not listed. NOAA did not respond to requests for comment.

The NOAA enforcement actions represent just a fraction of the instances of speeding in the Oceana report, which found that 7,111 vessels sped through zones with mandatory speed restrictions in that timeframe.

Beyond enforcement, the Oceana report also calls for the restrictions to be expanded.

The speed limits currently apply only to vessels 65 feet or longer, which the report likens to applying highway speed limits to semi trucks but not cars.

“Cars, vans and pickup trucks can also hit a pedestrian and kill them walking across the street,” Bennett-Martin said.

And smaller boats can injure and kill right whales. 

Last year, a calf was found dead off the North Florida coast. Investigators found that a 54-foot recreational fishing boat had struck and killed the calf while doing 21 knots, or about 25 miles per hour — 10 knots over the speed limit for larger boats. The calf’s mother, Infinity, was later spotted with cuts suggesting a recent vessel strike; though not fatal, the wounds left her at risk of infection.

The report proposes extending the speed restrictions to vessels of all lengths, requiring vessels of all lengths to use AIS continuously to transmit their speed, narrowing federal agencies’ exemption from the speed rule, and other changes.

“It’s grim news,” Bennett-Martin said. “But again, I keep coming back to that fact that we see what the issue is. The data is now here to tell us where the issues are. There’s something very positive about knowing what the issue is so that we can at least address it.”

This story comes to The Current through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.