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WASHINGTON— Wildlife conservation and animal-protection groups are applauding a National Marine Fisheries Service proposal to keep existing speed limits along the U.S. East Coast to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. The current speed rule, which requires vessels 65 feet in length and greater to slow to 10 knots (about 11 miles per hour) in areas and at times when right whales are present, is set to expire December 2013.

The Humane Society of the United States, Center for Biological Diversity, Whale and Dolphin Conservation and Defenders of Wildlife petitioned the Fisheries Service to maintain the ship speeds in June 2012.

Ralph Henry, senior attorney for wildlife litigation with The Humane Society of the United States, said: “NMFS enacted the ship speed rule because right whales were literally being run into the ground by the commercial shipping industry. Extending the existing regulation is a common-sense step toward moving this critically endangered species out of the emergency room and onto the path to recovery.”

Ship strikes remain one of the top threats to the North Atlantic right whale’s survival. Although the whales have been protected as an endangered species for more than 40 years, fewer than 500 of them remain in the world. The whales’ coastal feeding, breeding and nursing grounds along the East Coast coincide with some of the nation’s busiest shipping ports, and each year, one or two whales are struck and killed or very seriously injured. Many more ship strikes go unreported.

Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said: “We live in a global economy and rely on shipping. But it doesn’t need to happen at the expense of the survival of a species. The data show that the economic impacts of this rule are minimal but the benefit to whales and the environment is significant — it’s common sense.”

The groups formally asked the Fisheries Service last June to maintain the critical speed limits, which were first adopted in 2008. An April 2013 scientific report found that speed limits have successfully reduced the number of vessel-related right whale deaths by 80 to 90 percent.

“Slowing ships will speed up right whale recovery. Speed limits are a simple and effective way to avoid deadly collisions, which are threatening the whale’s survival,” said Sarah Uhlemann, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

While keeping the existing speed limits is a much-needed step forward, the rule should be extended to apply more broadly in the Northeast, including along Jeffrey’s Ledge and Jordan Basin, where right whales are known to congregate in the fall and winter. Records show that vessels shorter than 65 feet long can kill whales, so the rule should apply to smaller vessels as well. The groups are disappointed that additional protective measures are not included in the proposed rule, but pleased that the agency has not proposed another automatic sunset date.

In addition to protecting right whales, slowing ships will reduce vessel collisions with other protected species, including humpback, fin and minke whales. Slower ships also produce less noise and air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is requesting public comments on its proposed speed limit rule by August 6, 2013.

Background on Right Whales
• The North Atlantic right whale was decimated by commercial whaling in past centuries, and despite being protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1970 has not recovered.

• The whales, reaching 55 feet in length, migrate from calving grounds off the southeastern United States to feeding grounds off the northeastern United States and Canada.

• Adult female right whales reproduce slowly, giving birth to one calf every four years and not reaching reproductive maturity until age 8.

• The primary threats to imperiled right whales are ship strikes, entanglement in commercial fishing gear, habitat degradation, rising noise levels, global warming, ocean acidification and pollution.