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Right whale advocates call for vessel speed limits 

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Mark Moran

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(South Carolina News Service) Wildlife advocates are calling on the Biden administration to tighten regulations protecting right whales in the North Atlantic following a series of injuries and deaths of the rare ocean mammals.

Defenders of Wildlife said since 2017, there have been 37 documented right whale deaths in U.S. and Canadian waters. The population has declined 20 percent since 2010.

Jane Davenport, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said her group supports the Biden administration's proposal to impose seasonal speed limits on vessels 35 feet and longer to slow the boats down during the whales' busiest times.

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"In other words, if right whales are detected either visually or acoustically, then there would be drawn a dynamic speed zone around them in which vessels would have to slow to 10 nautical miles an hour or less while they're going through that zone," Davenport explained.

Davenport noted a right whale calf currently has a 1-in-14 chance of dying before its first birthday from a vessel strike. The Biden administration is investing nearly $10 million to support recovery efforts as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said right whales are nearing extinction, with only 360 remaining, including fewer than 70 reproductively active females.

Davenport argued right whale protections are among the most critical environmental efforts the country can undertake.

"All that fertilization that they're doing," Davenport stressed. "I mean, we talk about saving trees, but we need to realize saving a whale is the equivalent of saving thousands and thousands and thousands of trees, in terms of the ecosystem services it can provide."

Davenport reported the latest right whale injured off the South Carolina coast was the first one to be born during the 2024 calving season. NOAA said its injuries were consistent with a vessel strike.

Davenport added only one-third of right whale mortalities are ever observed, so the documented deaths represent a significant undercount of the actual number.