Dozens of boats caught speeding before 'catastrophic' whale strike

Pressure is growing on authorities to stop North Atlantic right whales from being driven to extinction.

Dozens of boats have been caught speeding past a US beach, moments before a critically endangered whale was struck and killed.

Boats exceeding the 10-knot limit glowed red on a series of digital maps, compiled by non-profit Oceana, which tracked each vessel’s identity, speed, and GPS location between February 1 and 11.

Almost seven out of 10 (158 vessels) broke the speed limit, and one was caught travelling at a staggering 23.2 knots.

The analysis was released on Thursday (local time), weeks after a 14-metre North Atlantic right whale washed up dead with “catastrophic” injuries consistent with a boat strike off Virginia Beach, on the country’s east coast.

A man walking up to a dead North Atlantic right whale on Virginia Beach.
A North Atlantic right whale was found dead at Virginia Beach on February 12. Source: Center for Biological Diversity

“We can reconstruct what happened with this whale and tell the story of its tragic end,” Oceana’s Gib Brogan told Yahoo News Australia. “With technology, we know where the whales are and where the boats are, and the combination of the two of them often ends up deadly.”

Fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales survive, of which 80 are breeding females. Along with climate change, boat strikes, ocean noise and fishing entanglements have been identified as major threats to their survival as a species.

Simple change could help prevent North Atlantic right whale extinction

Mr Brogan believes the death was likely preventable and he argues many future tragedies can be avoided if boats simply slow down.

“Similar to when you drive a car past a school, there’s a slow zone…and the same thing happens with the whales. If we slow down the boats to less than 10 knots, the likelihood that a right whale is going to be killed by a boat goes down by more than 80 per cent.”

A still from the Ship Speed Watch tool.
A still from the Ship Speed Watch tool taken from late February illustrates how it tracks boat speeds off Virginia. Source: Oceana

According to Oceana’s data, boats broke mandatory speed limits and exceeded recommendations in voluntary speed zones that were enacted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) after seven whales were spotted on January 25.

With over 50 whales killed or injured by boat strike since 2017, Oceana is urging the US government to enact and enforce speed zones along the east coast to help protect the whales.

The Biden administration is currently considering a bill to help stop the species becoming extinct which could become law by June. But for Mr Brogdan, enacting it can’t come soon enough, and he says immediate action is required.

“The damage can be catastrophic, causing the whale to die very soon after a strike. In other cases, the whale is injured, either by the hull of the boat or by the propeller and they can live for months or years,” he said.

“There was a whale that had the nickname of Wolverine, because it had what looked like scratch marks down its back from being hit by a propeller.”

In Australia, a humpback whale with similar injuries across its back was nicknamed Bladerunner.

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