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SOUTHEAST PORTS: RIGHT WHALES--CHARLESTON & SAVANNAH

Note: Senate and House members have introduced the Human Safety and the Economy Act of 2023, attempting to prohibit NOAA from taking action on proposed Amendments to the North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction Rule. Follow the links for the full text of these Senate and House bills.

This interactive map shows Panamax and Post-Panamax vessels at their maximum speeds from November 1 to April 30. Hover to view details.

The port approaches of Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia are high-risk areas for ship strikes to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Ship speed is consistently high and compliance is very low. Despite regulatory protection right whales remain at risk here, in the busiest containership port region on the East coast. Scroll over the heat maps for detailed ship speed and wind speed information, and take a look at the migratory track of one right whale, shared by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), below.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), NOAA, Department of Commerce, has proposed Amendments to the North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction Rule, linked here. We will resume monitoring when the new regulations are enacted. 

The North Atlantic right whale (“right whale”) is an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, a depleted species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a Species at Risk under Canadian law, and listed as a Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Population numbers have declined since 2010 to a current best estimate of 356 whales. The female population is declining faster than males, with fewer than 95 reproductive-age females in existence. Primary threats to the species are serious injury and mortality from vessel strikes, entanglement, and declining reproductivity related to entanglement and ship strikes. Right whales are a coastal species and vulnerable to ship strikes in areas around major seaports; females with nursing calves are acutely vulnerable, being more confined to nearshore and surface areas. To protect right whales from ship strikes, federal law mandates that all regulated vessels 65 feet or longer must travel at 10 knots or less in certain areas between November 1 and April 30 each year. It is generally accepted that these federally implemented, mandatory speed restrictions have achieved a statistically significant reduction in ship strike injury and mortality, and that the rule has been effective in reducing right whale ship strike injury and mortality. But with compliance rates consistently below 5%, it is unlikely that ships entering Charleston and Savannah are participating in protections achieved in other portions of the Seasonal Management Area (SMA) system. In its report North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena Glacialis) Vessel Speed Rule Assessment, June 2020, NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources notes that vessels in certain SMAs exceed 10 knots at disproportionately high levels, especially OGVs (“ocean-going vessels”) in channel entrances. OGVs entering southern ports under pilotage, represent an outsized proportion of vessels traveling at excess speed.

A discretionary feature of the speed regulation, the Navigational Safety Exception Provision (“safety deviation”), permits ship operators to exceed 10 knots in adverse conditions. It appears, based on our monitoring during the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 SMA seasons, that the safety deviation has been used unjustifiably during most transits of the Charleston and Savannah entrance channels (EC), undermining the regulation’s effectiveness. NOAA’s Vessel Speed Rule Assessment reports that “there are indications that some vessels may be claiming severe maneuverability constraints without reasonable grounds.” It recommends that “NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) should investigate modifications to the regulatory language including possible contemporaneous electronic notification of safety deviations.” We support NOAA’s recommendation, which would allow ship logbook entries to be checked against vessel position reports and meteorological data for consistency.

Self-regulated and discretionary compliance may not achieve policy and management objectives to reduce the incidence and severity of ship collisions with right whales in this section of the Mid-Atlantic SMA. Modification to the rules, developed with pilot input, to establish effective, measurable standards, along with monitoring and enforcement, may allow regulators to achieve currently elusive policy and management objectives.

The Charleston and Savannah entrance channels are subject to mandatory federal speed restrictions between November 1 and April 30. The seasonal speed restrictions were enacted to reduce the risk to migratory whales, including pregnant females, passing port areas enroute to calving and nursery grounds on the Georgia and Florida coasts each fall, and to the same migratory whales, including mothers and nursing calves, enroute to Northern latitudes in the spring. Every mother-calf pair represents one of fewer than 95 reproductive females in existence (Marine Mammal Commission, 2020), at a critical phase of the reproductive cycle. Population numbers have declined since 2010 to a current best estimate of 356 whales, with female numbers declining faster than the number of males (North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium 2020 Annual Report Card). To avoid continued losses and sliding ever closer to extinction, the migratory population, significantly including mothers and calves, must be protected from ship strikes around major port areas.

The entrance channels for the ports of Charleston and Savannah funnel traffic into the busiest containership port region on the East coast (United States Department of Transportation). Unlike other port areas in the SMA system, with deep approaches from the ocean, the ports of Charleston and Savannah are approached through federal channels--federally funded, designed, dredged, and maintained. Ships must stay in the channels to avoid grounding, and pilotage is compulsory. As inbound ships approach the entrance channels, they slow to pick up a pilot. Outbound ships follow the same procedure, disembarking a pilot at boarding areas seaward of the entrance channels. The entrance channels are long and narrow, and cut through shallow water as ships approach the coast. United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) dredging projects have made these channels deeper but not wider, to accommodate post-Panamax vessel traffic, creating efficiencies of scale and record cargo volumes touted by the South Carolina and Georgia port authorities. Whereas dredging deeper channels to accommodate larger ships is accomplished, dredging wider channels, which would improve navigational safety margins, have not been pursued by federal authorities.

North Atlantic Right Whale Migration (Mid-Atlantic Seasonal Management Area) at Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

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