Yachts Won’t Slow Down to Save a Nearly Extinct Whale

Speed limits could make whale collisions far less deadly. So why are fishing boats against them?

A yacht and a whale side by side.
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

This article was originally published by Undark.

Along the eastern coast of North America, North Atlantic right whales and boats navigate the same waters, which can get dicey for both. Fully grown, the whales can top out at more than 50 feet and weigh 140,000 pounds. A midsize, 58-foot-long pleasure yacht weighs about 80,000 pounds and can cost more than $1 million. “No mariner wants to collide with a whale,” says the retired Coast Guard officer Greg Reilly. “For obvious reasons.”

Still, the North Atlantic right whale is particularly vulnerable to boat strikes. Since 2017, more and more of the large whales have been found dead off the eastern coasts of the United States and Canada, at times  after getting hit by a vessel. In response, in 2017, NOAA Fisheries declared an “unusual mortality event” for the species, which, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, “demands immediate response.”

The whales kept dying. By 2021, only an estimated 340 remained. The next year, NOAA Fisheries proposed changes to speed limits that are meant to reduce boat-whale collisions. The proposal would implement a mandatory speed limit of 10 knots in places where whales are spotted, and impose speed restrictions on many recreational- and commercial-fishing boats.

There is strong science documenting the plight of right whales, and the connection between boat speed and deadly collisions. But opposition from industry groups and fishing advocates, as well as potential difficulties with implementation and enforcement, may stall the new rules—if they get approved at all.

According to Kathleen Collins, the marine-campaign manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a global nonprofit, pushback from the recreational-boating sector has already slowed attempts to lower the speed limit. In late 2022, several nonprofits filed emergency petitions with NOAA Fisheries and the Department of Commerce to enact new speed limits as a placeholder until the full rules could be approved, but in mid-January 2023, the Biden administration rejected the request.

The petitions didn’t fail because of a “lack of scientific understanding of right whales,” Collins says, but because industry groups lobbied lawmakers, primarily out of concerns for their members’ livelihoods. Mike Leonard, the vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association—a trade organization that represents sportfishing manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers, and media—confirmed via email that the group shared concerns about the proposed speed rules with members of Congress.

Another group that opposes the proposed rules is the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which published a statement against the amendments and encouraged its members to leave public comments. The RFA’s website says it is a “grassroots political action organization” meant to protect the rights of recreational fishers; however, its board includes boating- and fishing-industry executives and associates, and it was founded by Bill and Bob Healey, who founded the yacht manufacturer Viking Yacht Company. The current RFA chair is Bob Healey Jr., who is also the current chair of Viking Group. The RFA did not respond to an emailed request for comment, and several calls to the group went unanswered.

NOAA Fisheries told Undark that a decision on the proposed changes is forthcoming in 2023. In an email, the spokesperson Katie Wagner wrote that the agency is “prioritizing efforts to develop effective, long-term North Atlantic right whale vessel strike reduction measures.”

Any whale can be the victim of a vessel strike, but North Atlantic right whales are especially vulnerable because they tend to spend time near the coast and at the water’s surface. Hunted to near extinction in the late 1800s by whalers who called them the “right” whales because they floated once killed, the population didn’t recover much after whaling was banned in 1971.

In the early 1970s, the species was listed for protection in the U.S. under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, with enforcement falling under NOAA Fisheries.

Gregory Silber worked as the national coordinator of recovery activities for large whales at NOAA Fisheries from 1997 to 2017, following a five-and-a-half-year stint with the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent government agency created by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. “About 80 to 90 percent of my time was spent on North Atlantic right whales,” Silber says, “because of their dire situation.” Right whales face the greatest risks from entanglement in commercial-fishing gear and from being struck by boats. Because of the powerful fishing lobby and the complexity of the entanglement issue, Silber says, he felt his best bet was to focus on vessel strikes.

The first paper to raise the possibility that speed may influence boat-whale collisions was published in 2001. The researchers scoured the historical record to detail 58 documented cases of ships hitting great whales. They found that the most lethal and severe collisions tended to occur when the ship was moving 14 knots or faster, and that more often than not, the whale was not spotted beforehand. How exactly speed played a role wasn’t clear, Silber says, but the paper inspired him to look into the issue himself.

In 2005, Silber and a colleague, Richard Pace, analyzed data from more recent whale-ship collisions. The duo found that the probability of a strike killing or seriously maiming a whale increased dramatically with speed—a 50 percent risk at 10.5 knots jumped to a 90 percent risk at 17 knots. And boats traversing North Atlantic–right–whale territory tended to travel from 10 to 20 knots. Silber had seen enough: It was time to set speed limits.

Off the coast of the southeastern U.S., where vessel strikes are among the greatest threats to North Atlantic right whales, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and other organizations educate the maritime community and local governments about right whales in an effort to get boaters to slow down. In 2008, NOAA Fisheries successfully enacted mandatory speed limits of 10 knots in so-called seasonal management areas, where boats must slow down at certain times of the year, and voluntary slowdowns in dynamic management areas, which are created by NOAA Fisheries where a certain number of right whales have been spotted and last for 15 days.

But compliance can be low. In a 2021 report, the nonprofit Oceana analyzed vessel-speed data from 2017 to 2020 and found that as little as 10 percent of boats stayed within the limit in mandatory zones and as little as 15 percent did so in voluntary zones. These rules apply only to boats at least 65 feet in length. According to NOAA Fisheries, the 2008 rule served as a model for other nations, such as Canada, to implement rules of their own.

Even with low compliance, studies have consistently found that speed limits help protect whales. A 2006 study confirmed that strikes at faster speeds are deadlier; a 2013 study by Silber and Paul Conn, a NOAA researcher, estimated that the 2008 speed rule reduced right-whale mortality risk from ship strikes by 80 to 90 percent (research suggests that even though many boats weren’t following the speed limit, they still may have slowed down enough to help improve the whale’s chances); similarly, a 2018 analysis of a voluntary speed rule in Canada’s St. Lawrence Estuary found that it resulted in boats going slower and an up to 40 percent reduction in risk of lethal strikes with fin whales; and a 2020 study using computer simulations of boats hitting whales indicated that, though lower speeds are safer, with a larger vessel, even a collision at the 10-knot speed limit could probably still do serious harm. These simulations also suggested that boats of all sizes—not just those bigger than 65 feet—could kill right whales.

In 2010, Silber took his efforts to prove that speed kills to their logical end. Along with Jonathan Slutsky, of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, and Shannon Bettridge, of NOAA Fisheries, Silber put a model whale made of thermoplastic resin in a basin of water the size of almost seven Olympic swimming pools. They then rammed this half-meter-long scale replica of a North Atlantic right whale with a model container ship from various angles and speeds while an accelerometer stuffed inside recorded the force of impact. The hits were worse at faster speeds, but with a ship that large, the forces resulting from a collision could be devastating even at a slow pace. “It became clear right off the bat,” Silber recalls Slutsky telling him, “that whale is toast at any speed.”

Critics of the proposed speed-limit amendment cite safety concerns such as being unable to outrun inclement weather, though mariners would be allowed to break the speed limit in such cases, as they are under the original rule. But the primary worry, according to Leonard from the American Sportfishing Association, comes down to the economic impact. NOAA estimates the total annual cost of the changes to be about $46 million, with more than a third affecting the shipping industry. At least some of the remainder would fall on the recreational and sportfishing industry, many members of which left public comments warning that including their boats in the speed rules will negatively affect their livelihoods (the new rules would affect most boats 35 feet and up).

One commenter, a charter-boat operator in North Carolina, wrote that “the speed limit would effectively double” their travel time and that “my customers are paying to fish, and catch fish, not just for an extended boat ride.” Leonard says that while the ASA has worked with NOAA Fisheries on fishing regulations in the past, there was no such collaboration on the new speed rules. “It was a very stark contrast,” he says.

In an email from Wagner, NOAA Fisheries told Undark “we engage our partners, including the fishing and shipping industries, as we develop regulations and management plans” and pointed to the public-comment period.

A report by the consulting firm Southwick Associates commissioned by the American Sportfishing Association says NOAA Fisheries underestimated the economic impact and the number of vessels the new rules would affect, while overestimating the risk of a boat-whale strike. The report does not dispute the relationship between vessel speed and collision severity or the perilous status of right whales.

Silber told Undark that when he pitched the initial 2008 rule up the chain of command, he was asked point-blank by the head of NOAA what the economic impact would be to consumers. After a “full-blown economic analysis,” he said, he came back with an answer: Prices would go up by 6 cents for every dollar. Silber, now retired, supports the attempts by NOAA Fisheries to update the initial speed rules that he helped craft, but cautioned in his own public comments that the proposed changes will be difficult to implement and enforce. While previous reports have suggested a finalized proposal could come as early as June 2023, Silber guesses that there will be delays and modifications to the final rule.

Greg Reilly, the retired Coast Guard officer, now works for the International Fund for Animal Welfare to try to persuade mariners to slow their boats. “It’s pretty well-recognized that nobody wants to go out and harm a right whale,” he says.

“All of our research right now,” he adds, “indicates that the way to prevent whale strikes is slower speeds.”