Groups sue to force finalization of ship speed rules protecting whales

A coalition of environmental groups has sued the federal government to try to force the finalization of ship speed rules that the groups say are critically important to save a vanishing species of whale.

The proposed ship speed rules would require vessels off the East Coast to slow down more often to help save the North Atlantic right whale. The whale numbers less than 360 and has been in decline in recent years in large part because of collisions with ships and entanglement in commercial fishing gear.

The environmental groups filed in federal court Tuesday with a request to allow a paused lawsuit about the ship speed rules to go forward. Members of the groups have criticized the federal government for delays in releasing the final rules and said they hope to force a deadline via their lawsuit.

“The federal government has known for years that right whales urgently require expanded vessel strike protections, yet has repeatedly kicked the can down the road,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the proposed ship speed rules in summer 2022. The rules would expand slow zones off the East Coast that require mariners to slow down. They would also require more vessels to comply with those rules.

NOAA is still working on finalizing the rules, said Andrea Gomez, a spokesperson for the agency. Gomez said the agency can’t comment on the lawsuit itself.

“While NOAA Fisheries anticipated taking action on the proposed rule to modify North Atlantic right whale vessel speed regulations in 2023, the rule making process remains underway,” Gomez said.

Members of the environmental groups said they were motivated to file court papers in part because of recent injuries and deaths suffered by right whales, which are migrating along the East Coast. One right whale found dead off Massachusetts in January showed signs of chronic entanglement in fishing gear, NOAA officials said. The agency said Wednesday its analysis of the gear showed that the rope was consistent with the kind used in Maine state waters, indicating the whale traveled while entangled.

Environmentalists, commercial fishermen and the federal government have also been in court for years about laws designed to protect the whales from entanglement.

The right whales were once abundant off the East Coast but were decimated during the commercial whaling era. In recent years, scientists have said climate change is a threat to the whales because the shifting locations of the food they eat causes them to stray from protected areas of ocean.

“Watching North Atlantic right whales get hurt while federal agencies drag their feet on a speed limit rule is heart-wrenching and beyond frustrating,” said Catherine Kilduff, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, another group involved in the lawsuit.