Washington, DC – The U.S. Navy has ordered its vessels to exercise greater caution when operating in the migratory corridors of the Atlantic right whale, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has learned. This temporary measure follows the death of four endangered right whales, including two pregnant females, in little more than a month.
One of those pregnant females, whose unborn calf was almost at full term, was rammed by a Navy ship outside the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. By far, the single biggest known source of whale strikes is the U.S. Navy. Navy vessel traffic dwarfs commercial ship traffic in some right whale habitat and naval vessels tend to travel at higher speeds – a factor exacerbating both the likelihood of a strike and the physical harm done to the whale.
In an email to PEER, Lieutenant Commander Charlie Brown, the Public Affairs officer for the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, wrote that the Navy had adopted “amplified guidance [that] does include information to raise awareness of right whale migration in the mid-Atlantic during certain times of the year, and provides specific operational direction designed to increase vigilance and enhance caution exercised by naval vessels in the areas of concern.” But LCDR Brown refused to release “specific operational details.”
In mid-December, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, which oversees right whale recovery, announced that the Navy had agreed to take certain measures to reduce its ship strikes on right whales but was unsure if and when the Navy actually implemented those steps. Despite its significant impacts, the Navy refuses to even consult with NOAA on naval operations in the mid-Atlantic that affect right whale survival.
“This action suggests that the Navy was not previously exercising due caution,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former federal biologist, noting that the Navy has released no information about the latest right whale strike by its vessel. “The Navy’s belated concessions, while welcome, may be inadequate because so long as the Navy remains the sole arbiter of the adequacy of its actions, we will continue to see more tragic accidents.”
This spring, NOAA announced it would consider adopting ship speed limits, rerouting and channel restrictions to avoid or minimize ship traffic in sensitive calving, mating and migratory areas. But since that time NOAA has only urged voluntary cooperation.
“Right whale recovery just suffered a crushing blow, with more than 1 percent of the entire population lost in a matter of weeks,” Bennett added, pointing out that there are only 300 right whales left in existence. “If right whale extinction is to be avoided, we can no longer afford to wait for additional calamities before taking effective action.” PEER has sent a letter to Commerce Secretary-designate Carlos Gutierrez urging him to adopt the proposed NOAA measures as one of his first acts of office following his confirmation.