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Scofflaw cargo vessels endanger right whales off Port of Savannah

Credit: NOAA via FWS

David Pendered

Cargo vessels operating off the increasingly busy Port of Savannah are the primary violators of speed limits intended to protect the critically endangered right whales, according to a recent report from Oceana, a global conservation organization.

A whale is stuck on the bulbous bow of a vessel. Collisions with ships are a primary threat to right whales, according to NOAA. File/Credit: NOAA via FWS

Oceana issued its report July 21, a few days before the Savannah port reported July 26 a record-high year for the volume of cargo shipped in and out of the port. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the number of containers increased by 20% compared to FY2019. The port’s statement does not appear to mention the number of vessels transporting the goods.

Oceana did not connect the speeding vessels with any destination in its report, “Speeding Toward Extinction: Vessel Strikes Threaten North American Right Whales.”

The report comes as North American Right Whales again experience a declining population. NOAA lastest report on conservation efforts, issued December 2020, cites two leading causes of injuries and death as: A vessel strike, meaning the whales’ bodies may be sliced or chopped by ships’ propellers; and getting tangled in fishing gear such as lines connecting lobster buoys on the surface to traps on the bottom, whereby the line can cut flesh and break bones.

The figures in Oceana’s report portray a culture of boat operators, mainly cargo vessels, speeding along Georgia’s coast in violation of federal speed limits during two critical periods  – during the winter calving season, when a 10-knot maximum speed is mandated; and in other seasons, when right whales have been spotted and reported to vessel operators and a 10-knot speed limit is voluntary.

During the winter calving season:

This baby whale that washed ashore in February, in St. Augustine, Fl., died from injuries sustained when he was struck by a 54-foot sport fishing vessel that reported the collision. Credit:FWC/Tucker Joenz, NOAA Fisheries Permit #18786

  • Almost 90% of all vessels violated the mandatory 10-knot speed limit in the area between the port cities of Wilmington, N.C. and Brunswick. Savannah is between the two cities;
  • Almost 50% of cargo vessels break the speed limit, making the category the worst offender;
  • The worst offenders were flagged out of five countries: the United States; Panama; Marshall Islands, Liberia; Singapore and Germany. A vessel’s flag relates to its place of registry, not ownership.

During the voluntary periods, when right whales have been reported to vessel operators and the recommended speed is 10 knots:

  • More than 80% of all vessels violated the voluntary 10-knot speed limit between Wilmington and Brunswick;
  • Almost 42% of cargo vessels break the speed limit, making the category the worst offender;
  • The worst offenders were vessels flagged from the four of the same five countries: the United States; Marshall Islands; Panama; Liberia and Germany. Singapore was dropped from this list and Liberia was added.

The population of North American Right Whales, which is Georgia’s state marine mammal, has seesawed over the past 30 years. In 1990, about 270 right whales were thought to exist. The estimate reached 483 in 2010 and now is estimated at fewer than 400, according to the December 2020 report from NOAA that lists vessel and fishing gear interactions as leading culprits of the decline.

Oceana has issued a call to action that includes:

  • Enforcing the speed limits;
  • Expanding the areas where right whales are protected in certain seasons;
  • Replacing voluntary compliance with mandatory compliance when right whales have been sighted and reported.

Canada has joined the U.S. in issuing rules intended to protect right whales from ship collisions. On Tuesday, the Canadian government released grids where fishing is closed to protect whales from being entangled in gear for snow crab, halibut, winter flounder and a number of other species.

Whitney Webber, Oceana’s campaign director for responsible fishing, has said Canada’s efforts are as start in the right direction and that more can be done:

  • “There are parts of Canada’s regulations that serve as a good model for the U.S., such as including smaller vessels, only exempting federal vessels under certain circumstances, and making speed zones mandatory. These are all important, but there’s still more work to be done in both countries.”


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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