NANTUCKET, Mass. (CN) — New sightings of a rare whale species has led the government to set a speed limit on boats navigating waters east of Boston and to extend restrictions southeast of Nantucket, Massachusetts.
The update from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration brings the total number of voluntary slow-speed zones up to three. There are also three mandatory zones for the North American right whale, a species that lost 5% of its estimated total population when researchers counted an unprecedented 20 deaths in 2017 and 2019.
Even in the voluntary zones, it is a federal offense to come within 500 feet of a right whale, according to the NOAA’s website.
The New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life estimates that there are only 411 right whales left in the world, making it one of the rarest species of whales.
Frequently targeted by commercial New England whalers in the 1800s, the right whale was thought to be extinct until 1980 when researchers from the New England Aquarium discovered 25 in the Bay of Fundy, which sits between the edge of Maine’s eastern shore and Nova Scotia.
Since then the NOAA has monitored the North Atlantic right whales’ population and migration route along the east coast from Florida to Nova Scotia.
Vessel strikes and getting tangled in fishing gear are the two largest threats to the whales.
The NOAA announced the new protective area 18 nautical miles east of Boston late Monday, citing a March 14 report that a group of the whales had been spotted in the area. The new zone is in effect through March 29.
March 14 was the same day the NOAA announced an extension of the two Nantucket-area zones, saying an aerial survey had observed one group of right whales about 31 nautical miles south of the island and a second group about 47 nautical miles to the southeast.
This extension until March 27 is one of several adopted this year by the agency and may not be the last as the NOAA continues to spot groups of right whales in the area.
Mariners are encouraged to avoid the two zones, or to at least reduce their vessel speeds to under 10 knots while inside the zones.
An NOAA representative did not respond to an email seeking comment.