PROVINCETOWN — When right whales visit the seas around Cape Cod in the winter and early spring, large boats in the whales’ favored areas are barred from going faster than 10 knots. A new report from the environmental nonprofit Oceana, however, found that around half the vessels over 65 feet long broke this speed limit during their passage through Cape waters.
And that’s better than the findings from the rest of the East Coast.
“Vessels are speeding at an incredibly alarming rate, all the way up and down the East Coast,” said Julia Singer, a marine scientist with Oceana and a co-author of the report. This trend, she said, presents a “very, very high danger” to right whale populations.
Yet enforcement of the speed limit is low. In the 2022-2023 season, NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement has levied $900,000 in fines against 53 speeding vessel operators based on data from the automatic information system — far fewer than the 7,300 vessels that Oceana has recorded speeding.
Real and Voluntary Rules
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) designates zones in the Atlantic Ocean, called seasonal management areas (SMAs), where vessels over 65 feet long are not allowed to exceed 10 knots. These areas are established in parts of the ocean that right whales use, and the restrictions are in effect only during the part of the year when right whales are typically present.
Cape Cod has two seasonal management areas: Cape Cod Bay, which is active from Jan. 1 to May 15, and Off Race Point on the ocean side, which is active from March 1 to April 30. At the state level, the Div. of Marine Fisheries also maintains a speed limit in Cape Cod Bay for all vessels from March 1 to April 30, though data on those boats were not included in the Oceana report.
To understand whether ships obeyed the rules, Oceana surveyed the speed of large boats using data from the automatic identification system, a network of shipboard transponders that shares boats’ locations, course, and speed. Oceana used these data to determine whether boats were speeding within SMAs across the entire East Coast from November 2020 through July 2022.
Coast-wide, the study found, 84 percent of vessels violated the 10-knot speed limit within at least one SMA.
Clearly, widespread speeding elsewhere is dangerous for whales. And right whales’ migratory lives mean that many individuals that visit Cape Cod will spend time in these other more dangerous SMAs. “The whales that are here work well beyond Massachusetts waters,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo III, the right whale research program director for the Center for Coastal Studies.
But while Cape Cod’s compliance rates are among the best in the area that was studied, speed violations here were not rare: over 54 percent of the large vessels in Cape Cod Bay and over 38 percent off Race Point violated the 10-knot restriction at least once.
Oceana also noted multiple vessels traveling at more than triple the 10-knot speed limit through Cape Cod’s two SMAs. One ship in Cape Cod Bay was found to have hit a speed of 38.4 knots, and another ship off Race Point was identified traveling at 34.3 knots. Widespread speeding represents a disregard for the law, Singer said. If these noncompliance rates were true for any other laws, she said, “that would be insane.”
There is another set of speed rules meant to protect whales: NOAA has established so-called dynamic management areas and slow zones. In them, temporary speed rules go into effect when a right whale is spotted visually or acoustically. These 15-mile-long rectangular areas are established for 15 days at a time, unless a whale stays in the area for a longer period.
Slowing down in these zones is voluntary, however. So, captains are encouraged by NOAA to limit their speed to avoid harm to right whales, but boats are permitted to exceed 10 knots in them without facing any penalty.
Oceana found that nearly 65 percent of large vessels in these dynamic zones in the Gulf of Maine exceeded the recommended 10-knot limit. Since these zones represent a confirmed sighting of a whale nearby, Singer said, “for boats to transit at high speeds through there is really one of the most dangerous things they can do.”
The danger that speeding vessels pose to right whales is significant: one out of three right whale deaths in the last six years was directly caused by ship strikes, according to NOAA.
These deaths are part of an ongoing NOAA-declared unusual mortality event in this species, where 121 right whales have been found dead or injured since 2017. These deaths far outpace the birth of new calves in the same time frame and have caused the population to decline significantly.
One such death happened in April 2016, when a right whale calf was found killed off Chatham with wounds consistent with a vessel strike. It was one of only 14 calves of the species to be born that winter.
Mayo suspects that there are likely far more deaths caused by vessel strikes than scientists can confirm. “It’s very hard to tell when an animal has been smashed into,” he said. “Often there are no surface wounds.” Therefore, if a dead right whale sinks before it can wash ashore, it can be difficult to tell how it died. Mayo said he once watched an autopsy of a “pristine” right whale that washed up on the beach. It discovered a massive hematoma, indicating the whale had recently been struck by a ship.
Any vessel collision is potentially dangerous for a right whale. But, Singer notes, reducing the speed of a vessel can reduce the lethality of ship strikes by 80 to 90 percent, according to one model.
Part of the reason speeding is nonetheless so pervasive, Mayo contends, is that the ocean was not very carefully managed until a few decades ago. He compared the ocean before more recent legislation to “the open cowboy plains, if you will. You could go any damn speed.”
Despite more recent restrictions, he said, “it takes some time for people to realize that the ocean is not ‘go just anywhere you want and do anything you want.’ ”
Because of this lingering Wild West culture, both Mayo and Singer believe more enforcement is necessary.
Part of the reason for the discrepancy between the incidence of speeding and the number of fines imposed is that NOAA considers a vessel to be in violation of the 10-knot speed limit only if its average speed in an SMA exceeds 10 knots, whereas Oceana considers a vessel to be in violation if it ever exceeds the 10-knot limit.
The industry magazine Workboat reported that those definitions make a big difference. By NOAA’s standards, only 21 percent of vessels were speeding in the New York and New Jersey Harbor SMA, while by Oceana’s standards over 87 percent were.
Is This ‘Solvable’?
New data suggest that the right whale population may be stabilizing around 360 individuals, though this level is significantly lower than the population of 470 individuals estimated in 2011.
NOAA reported in March of this year that the 2022-2023 season marked the first time that 90 percent of vessels in the Cape Cod Bay and Off Race Point SMAs were in compliance with the 10-knot speed limit. When the SMAs were established in 2008, compliance was 50 percent.
But NOAA’s standards for violation are more relaxed than Oceana’s standards.
NOAA is currently considering several changes to the SMA system: extend the 10-knot speed limit to vessels that are 35 or more feet long; make dynamic management areas and slow zones mandatory; establish new, larger SMAs that cover most of the Atlantic coast of the U.S.; and extend the period in which the 10-knot limit is enforced from Nov. 1 to May 30.
These proposals are getting substantial pushback from industry stakeholders, who, according to a June report on WBUR, suggest that improved right whale tracking technology would be a more appropriate solution to the problem.
This problem, Singer said, is “big, but also something that’s solvable.” A meaningful solution, however, will require fast action, she said. “We need to start making changes now if we want to be able to save this whale.”