VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Seven North Atlantic right whales were off the coast Tuesday, from just east of Virginia Beach to farther inland towards Norfolk, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows.
North Atlantic right whales are considered critically endangered. This status comes from hunting that happened in the 20th century.
Although the practice of whaling has since been banned, numbers continue to dwindle and have been on the decline again since 2010, according to researchers.
This means that having a significant number of the species nearby could become a problem if the public isn't aware.
Why? They don't have a dorsal fin, they move notoriously slow and they're darker in color, so sometimes they are more difficult for boaters to spot.
If a boat is going too fast, it won't be able to change course and miss the whale in time. Collisions with vessels are their leading cause of death.
Dynamic Management Areas, more commonly known as "Slow Zones" for boats, are currently considered optional in many areas.
However, a 2022 proposed amendment to the North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction Rule, if it goes into effect, would make these zones mandatory.
This final decision requires authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service, a subdivision of NOAA, which rejected an emergency petition to speed up the approval process back in December.
Advocacy organizations, such as Oceana, say that these decisions need to be made now.
"The National Marine Fisheries Service is supposed to manage the risk of boat strikes and put adequate safeguards in place under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act," Oceana representative Gib Brogan said.
"Right now, they’re sitting on their hands while North Atlantic right whales swim amongst hundreds of boats every day. Waiting any longer to create effective safeguards from boat strikes is a failure of government responsibility when these whales need help right now.”
Right whales are detected through either visual sightings or acoustic technology, which tracks the sound waves of their clicks and whistles to find a precise location.
Katie Wagner, a NOAA spokesperson, provided the following comment in response to Oceana's remarks:
"NOAA Fisheries is prioritizing efforts to develop effective, long-term North Atlantic right whale vessel strike reduction measures. As such, the agency has denied petitions for emergency vessel speed regulations. NOAA Fisheries’ proposed changes to the North Atlantic right whale vessel speed regulations are designed to further reduce the likelihood of mortality and serious injury to endangered right whales from vessel collisions..."
"The measures the agency is proposing are part of a broader, robust approach to protect, conserve, and restore North Atlantic right whales called the Road to Recovery. As human activities and the environment change, right whales are facing additional threats—including impacts from climate change and expanded ocean use."
NOAA says that they are still reviewing comments and that they anticipate taking final action on proposed rule changes for boaters sometime this year.