Right whales saved by ship restrictions, NOAA says

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comJanuary 2, 2014 

The South Carolina, Georgia Right Whale Aerial Survey team took this photo of a severely injured right whale on Jan. 20, 2011 about 20 miles east of St. Helena Sound.

ECOHEALTH ALLIANCE, NOAA PERMIT #594-1759

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is permanently adopting a rule forcing ships to slow down in the migratory waters of right whales off the coast of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

The rule is designed to reduce the number of collisions between ships and the endangered whales, which migrate up and down the eastern seaboard to feed and breed.

NOAA officials say the rule is working, and Beaufort County's Al Segars, an S.C. Department of Natural Resources veterinarian, agrees.

"These animals are severely endangered, and I think whatever we can do to protect them while they're here certainly is a good idea," Segars said.

Only about 425 North Atlantic right whales exist today, NOAA estimates.

It's been nearly three years since a right whale was injured in waters off Beaufort County, Segars said. In January 2011, aerial survey teams spotted a severely injured right whale -- with gashes along its body caused by a boat propeller -- about 15 miles southeast of St. Helena Sound.

In 2013, NOAA recorded six sightings of right whales off the coast of South Carolina, including three of a mother and her calf near Port Royal Sound.

The agency established the speed rule in 2008 to try to prevent collisions with ships traveling through the mammal's migration path, which crosses major East Coast shipping lanes, including ports in Charleston and Savannah, according to a news release.

"Since the ship-speed restrictions went into effect, no known fatal ship strikes of North Atlantic right whales have occurred in the management zones," deputy NOAA administrator Mark Schaefer said in the release. "This rule is working. Before this rule went into effect, 13 right whales died as a result of being hit by vessels in the same areas during an 18-year study period."

The rule requires vessels longer than 65 feet to travel at 10 knots or less in the whales' migration path between November and April along the East Coast. It does allow vessels to exceed the limit in some cases to ensure safety.

Off South Carolina, NOAA's survey flights of the whales' migration and breeding areas have ended because of budget cuts. On those flights, observers first noted the presence of moms and new calves -- establishing the waters as part of the winter breeding grounds previously thought to be confined almost exclusively to Florida and northern Georgia.

Educating the public about the whales and the threats they face is an essential part of helping to rehabilitate populations, Segars said.

There are so few of the animals left and they often swim miles away from shore, so many people have never encountered them, Segars said. In addition, the whales are in South Carolina waters during the winter, when fewer people from Beaufort County are boating than in the summer, he added.

"A lot of it is just making people aware that they are there and how critically endangered they are," Segars said.

Right whale sightings

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plots recorded sightings of the severely endangered right whale on its website. In 2013, NOAA recorded six sightings of right whales off the coast of South Carolina, including three of a mother and her calf near Port Royal Sound. To see the map, go to www.islandpacket.com/right-whale-sightings.

Want to learn more?

Al Segars, S.C. Department of Natural Resources veterinarian, will speak about the whales off South Carolina's coast at 3 p.m. Jan. 15 at the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island. Tickets to the lecture cost $7 and require a reservation, which can be made at www.coastaldiscovery.org.

Charleston Post and Courier staff writer Bo Petersen contributed to this report. Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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