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Speed Limit Proposed to Save Whales

A North Atlantic right whale and her calf, photographed off the coast of South Carolina (2005). (Image credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission / NOAA)

The U.S. Fisheries Service on Friday proposed a speed limit for ships 65 feet and longer to reduce accidental killing of right whales.

A limit of 10 knots would apply during certain times of year in three regions along the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and Southeast U.S. coast.

Federal ships would be exempt.

Unknown death toll

The North Atlantic right whale, protected under the Endangered Species Act, is among the most endangered species in the world. Only about 300 of the beasts are thought to remain.

The right whale lives mostly in coastal waters out to the continental shelf. Calves are born during winter off the southeastern United States, and the whales feed in summer off New England and regions farther north.

Commercial whaling depleted right whale populations, and now the remaining population is vulnerable to ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, including countless "ghost nets" that haunt the sea, officials said. In at least two instances in recent years, wildlife experts worked to untangle right whales that would otherwise have died.

A study in May found that deaths of North Atlantic right whales might be underreported by 83 percent each year. At least eight whales had died in 16 months prior to the study's release.

"Reducing serious injuries and deaths among right whales due to ship collisions will allow more of these rare animals to reach maturity and to reproduce. That's a key factor for recovery," Bill Hogarth, NOAA Fisheries Service director, said Friday. "We believe the measures proposed here will make U.S. East Coast waters safer for right whales."

Federal ships exempt

The agency last year announced efforts to re-route ship traffic away from the right whale's habitats. Also last year, one oil company announced it would voluntarily travel around the whales.

The newly proposed speed limit would apply at certain times to coincide with the seasons when the right whales are in each of the three regions. The rule would allow for applying the speed limit to other areas on a temporary basis if right whales are spotted outside the main regions.

More about the proposed rule, as well as instructions on how the public can comment by Aug. 25, is available here.

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Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at Space.com starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.