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Washington, DC — The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration is sitting on two sets of rules to protect whales from the growing threat of death and harassment from whale watching expeditions, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Fatal collisions with ships have become a leading threat to whale survival. According to NOAA figures, whale watch boats are the second known leading cause of ship strikes of whales, second only to ship strikes by the U.S. Navy. Examples of whale watch incidents include:

  • On October 10, 2001, a whale-watch vessel injured a humpback whale approximately 5 nautical miles northwest of Stellwagen Bank, MA. An abrasion 1.5 feet long by 1 inch wide was seen anterior to the whale’s dorsal fin;
  • A minke whale killed in Barnstable, MA on September 12, 1998 when a whale-watching vessel traveling 25 knots struck the animal. According to reports, the whale swam under the bow of the boat, an impact was felt, and the whale surfaced with a deep gash. Shortly after the hit, the whale’s carcass was spotted.
  • A whale-watch catamaran traveling 17 knots injured a humpback whale in Maui, HI on February 13, 2001.

“It is ironic that expeditions to appreciate wildlife may be damaging that wildlife,” said New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former federal biologist. “Safeguards are needed to curb the desire by some operators to let their clients closely encounter whales at the risk or harassing or harming them.”

With the exception of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, there are no mandatory rules about how close whale watch boats may approach whales. Two efforts to codify these guidelines into enforceable rules have not moved beyond the proposal stage, despite growing evidence of harmful human-whale interactions. On January 4, 2000, NOAA placed a detailed proposal in the Federal Register that included –

  • Speed limits within a two-mile zone around a sighted whale;
  • Rules enforced with penalties for operators violating whale watch restrictions, such as a minimum approach buffer, similar to the 500 feet clearance afforded to right whales, and;
  • Special permits or certifications for whale watch vessel operators.

Two years later, on January 30, 2002, NOAA also proposed rules to prevent harassment of whales by humans on personal watercraft, kayaks and jumping off vessels to swim with whales. To date, however, neither of these proposals has been finalized.

“It is time for NOAA to stop proposing and start acting,” stated Bennett, who noted that just last month NOAA also proposed speed limits, no-shipping areas and designated shipping lanes in the Atlantic Ocean to protect endangered right whales. “Voluntary guidelines are no substitute for enforceable rules.”


Learn about the growing threat to whales from ship strikes

View the stalled 2000 whale watch rulemaking

See the orphaned rulemaking on preventing harassment of marine mammals in the wild

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