NOAA seeks permanent right-whale restrictions

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NOAA Fisheries is seeking comments on a proposal to permanently adopt rules it instituted five years ago to protect North Atlantic right whales, including a 10-knot speed limit for vessels 65 feet or longer in waters where the whales gather in certain seasons.

NOAA says the speed limit has reduced the number of ship strikes on whales along the East Coast from Maine to Florida. No ship-related whale deaths have been reported in seasonal management areas since the rule went into effect in 2008, it says, and studies indicate that the measures have reduced the probability of fatal strikes by 80 to 90 percent.

"Reducing ship speeds in areas where there are endangered right whales works," NOAA Fisheries acting administrator Sam Rauch said in a statement.

NOAA's revised estimates indicate that the restrictions cost the shipping industry and other maritime communities about one-third of original 2008 projections. Its scientists say industry compliance is high and that, in most cases, vessels have incorporated speed restrictions into their standard operations and voyage planning.

The rule proposes to continue existing speed restrictions during migration periods along three regions of the U.S. East Coast (the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast). These measures are implemented during the time of year when right whales — an endangered species — occur in each area. It also would continue a voluntary 10-knot speed limit in dynamic management zones where whales appear at times and in places not covered by seasonal speed restriction zones. Biologists believe there are about 450 right whales in the Northwest Atlantic population, and the number is growing.

NOAA published the proposal in the Federal Register last Wednesday. The 60-day comment period ends Aug. 6. Comments can be submitted through the Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov or at www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/comment.htm.

Comments can also be mailed to the Office of Protected Resources, NOAA Fisheries, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910, or faxed to (301) 713-4060.

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