HILTON HEAD — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration permanently is adopting a rule forcing ships to slow down in the migratory waters of right whales off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
The rule is designed to reduce the number of collisions between ships and the endangered whales, which migrate up and down the Eastern Seaboard to feed and breed.
NOAA officials say the rule is working, and Beaufort County’s Al Segars, S.C. Department of Natural Resources veterinarian, agrees.
“These animals are severely endangered, and I think whatever we can do to protect them while they’re here certainly is a good idea,” Segars said.
Only about 425 North Atlantic right whales exist today, NOAA estimates.
It’s been nearly three years since a right whale was injured in waters off Beaufort County, Segars said. In January 2011, aerial survey teams spotted the severely injured right whale – with gashes along its body caused by a boat propeller – about 15 miles southeast of St. Helena Sound.
In 2013, NOAA recorded six sightings of right whales off the coast of South Carolina, including three of a mother and her calf near Port Royal Sound.
The agency established the speed rule in 2008 to try to prevent collisions with ships traveling through the mammals’ migration path, which crosses major East Coast shipping lanes, including ports in Charleston and Savannah, according to a news release.
“Since the ship-speed restrictions went into effect, no known fatal ship strikes of North Atlantic right whales have occurred in the management zones,” deputy NOAA administrator Mark Schaefer said in the release. “This rule is working. Before this rule went into effect, 13 right whales died as a result of being hit by vessels in the same areas during an 18-year study period.”
The rule requires vessels longer than 65 feet to travel at 10 knots or less in the whales’ migration path between November and April along the East Coast. It does allow vessels to exceed the limit in some cases to ensure safety.
Off South Carolina, NOAA’s survey flights of the whales’ migration and breeding areas have ended because of budget cuts. On those flights, observers first noted the presence of mother whales and new calves – establishing the waters as part of the winter breeding grounds previously thought to be confined almost exclusively to Florida and Georgia.
Educating the public about the whales and the threats they face is an essential part of helping to rehabilitate populations, Segars said.
There are so few of the animals left and they often swim miles away from shore, so many people have never encountered them, Segars said. In addition, the whales are in S.C. waters during the winter, when fewer people from Beaufort County are boating than in the summer, he added.
“A lot of it is just making people aware that they are there and how critically endangered they are,” Segars said.
Staff writer Bo Petersen of The (Charleston) Post and Courier contributed to this report.