Scofflaw freighters endanger right whales off Savannah harbor
Freighters operating off the increasingly busy port of Savannah are the main violators of speed limits designed to protect critically endangered right whales, according to a recent report from Oceana, a global conservation organization.
Oceana released its report on July 21, days before the Port of Savannah reported a record year on July 26 for the volume of cargo entering and leaving the port. During the fiscal year ended June 30, the number of containers increased by 20% compared to fiscal 2019. The port declaration does not appear to mention the number of vessels carrying the goods.
Oceana did not link the excess vessels to any destination in her report entitled “Speeding Toward Extinction: Vessel Strikes Threaten North American Right Whales”.
The report comes as North American right whales are once again experiencing a declining population. NOAA’s latest report on conservation efforts, released in December 2020, cites two main causes of injury and death: a collision with a ship, which means the bodies of whales can be sliced or cut by the propellers of the ships; and becoming entangled in fishing gear such as lines connecting lobster buoys on the surface to traps on the bottom, thereby causing the line to cut flesh and break bones.
Figures from Oceana’s report describe a culture of boat operators, mostly freighters, speeding along the Georgian coast in violation of federal speed limits during two critical periods: during the winter calving season, when a maximum speed of 10 knots is compulsory; and in other seasons, when right whales have been spotted and reported to vessel operators and a speed limit of 10 knots is voluntary.
During the winter calving season:
- Almost 90% of all vessels violated the mandatory 10-knot speed limit in the area between the port cities of Wilmington, North Carolina and Brunswick. Savannah is between the two cities;
- Almost 50% of freighters exceed the speed limit, making this category the worst offender;
- The worst offenders were reported in five countries: the United States; Panama; Marshall Islands, Liberia; Singapore and Germany. The flag of a vessel relates to its place of registration, not to its ownership.
During voluntary periods, when right whales have been reported to vessel operators and the recommended speed is 10 knots:
- Over 80% of all vessels violated the voluntary 10 knot speed limit between Wilmington and Brunswick;
- Almost 42% of freighters exceed the speed limit, making this category the worst offender;
- The worst offenders were ships flying the flags of four of the same five countries: the United States; Marshall Islands; Panama; Liberia and Germany. Singapore was removed from this list and Liberia was added.
The North American right whale population, which is the state of Georgia’s marine mammal, has fluctuated over the past 30 years. In 1990, it was thought that there were around 270 right whales. The estimate reached 483 in 2010 and is now estimated to be less than 400, according to the December 2020 NOAA report which lists interactions between vessels and fishing gear as the main culprits of the decline.
Oceana has issued a call to action which includes:
- Enforce speed limits;
- Expand the areas where right whales are protected in certain seasons;
- Replace voluntary compliance with mandatory compliance when right whales have been sighted and reported.
Canada has joined with the United States in enacting rules to protect right whales from collisions with ships. On Tuesday, the Canadian government released grids where fishing is closed to prevent whales from entangling in gear for snow crab, halibut, winter flounder and a number of other species.
Whitney Webber, Oceana’s responsible fishing campaign manager, said Canada’s efforts are going in the right direction and more can be done:
- “There are parts of the Canadian regulations that serve as a good model for the United States, such as the inclusion of small vessels, the exemption of federal vessels only in certain circumstances, and the requirement for speed zones. All of this is important, but there is still work to be done in both countries.