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Right Whale, Right Rule

An endangered North Atlantic right whale suffers injuries following a propeller strike.

The story goes that right whales got their name because they were the “right” ones to hunt; they swim close to shore, they are easy targets due to their slow speed and docile nature, and they float after they die. While the story about their name could be debated, there is no debate about the dire state of right whale populations.

Commercial whaling of the right whale in the 19th and 20th centuries drove them to the brink of extinction, with all species now listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act  and “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Some populations, such as the North Atlantic right whale, number as few as 450. Our laws protect right whales from being hunted, but another human-caused threat jeopardizes their survival – ship strikes.

Incidental ship strikes resulted in 20 North Atlantic right whale deaths from 1990-2010. To address this issue NOAA enacted the Right Whale Ship Strike Reduction Rule in 2008, restricting vessels of 65 feet or greater to speeds of 10 knots or less in seasonal management areas along the East Coast where the whales are known to calve, feed, and migrate.

NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, Office of Protected Resources, and the shipping industry came together to develop a compliance guide on the rule to assist the commercial fishermen on compliance. The guide was distributed through various outlets including ports, marine exchanges, U.S. Coast Guard, and NOAA’s navigation managers. OLE sent the guide, along with informational letters, to vessels observed traveling in excess of the specified speeds. This protocol was part of OLE’s Compliance Assistance efforts. Between September 2009 and March 2011, OLE issued 149 educational letters.

OLE staff and a host of other state, federal, and non-governmental entities also took numerous opportunities to raise awareness about the rule, including presentations at conferences and public events such as boat shows, whale festivals, industry meetings, conferences, and training sessions.

“Implementing the educational aspect of the ship strike rule in year 1 proved to be an effective tool in reaching both the commercial shipping and fishing communities. We saw a shift in compliance and an appreciation from those individuals involved,” said Special Agent Stuart Cory, OLE’s national program manager for protected resources.

After a year of sending educational letters, NOAA’s Office of General Counsel (OGC) began issuing Notices of Violation and Assessment (NOVAs) to impose civil penalties for the most serious violations. To date, OLE agents and enforcement officers completed investigations and forwarded case packages to OGC, resulting in the issuance of 44 NOVAs to vessel owners and operators with an average assessed penalty of approximately $40,000.

As a result of this outreach and compliance assistance, no right whale deaths have been attributed to ship strikes in the seasonal management areas since the rule was enacted. A NOAA Fisheries study indicates the measures have reduced the probability of fatal ship strikes of right whales by 80 to 90 percent. The rule is slated to expire in December 2013 however the success in reducing ship strikes since its implementation has prompted NOAA to issue a proposal that would make the rule permanent. NOAA is currently reviewing public comments and will make a determination later this year whether to move forward with the proposal.

Want to help protect right whales? Contact the North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Advisory System if you see a right whale to help warn mariners and avoid collisions.

This story was developed by John Thibodeau, Communications Specialist for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. To contact him, please call 301-427-8234 or email