Safeguarding the North Atlantic right whale

North Atlantic right whales

The Coast Guard routinely assists federal and state partners with whale disentanglements and marine mammal strandings by providing sighting, vessel, aircraft and communications support. Photo courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/NOAA.

As a maritime service, with helicopters flying over inland lakes ready to save those that slip into icy waters, and cutters sailing the high seas enforcing international fishing agreements, the Coast Guard has become a key protector of our Nation’s marine resources.

The service’s legacy of environmental protection dates back to the late 1800s with the signing of the Fur Seal Act of 1897, charging the Coast Guard with the vital role of enforcing natural resource laws.

Yesterday, Coast Guard responders in Jacksonville, Fla., sprung into action when a North Atlantic right whale wandered into the St. Johns River, a major traffic route for naval vessels, commercial shipping and recreational traffic.

Protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the North Atlantic right whale is designated an endangered species with approximately 350 right whales left in the northern Atlantic Ocean. The species themselves are particularly vulnerable to human activities as they frequently linger at the surface, sometimes in areas of heavy vessel traffic.

With the whale swimming directly in the path of inbound and outbound commercial vessel traffic, the Coast Guard Captain of the Port for Jacksonville took steps to manage vessel traffic in the area, and ferry operations were suspended. Broadcast messages were sent out urging vessel operators to use caution and proceed at safe speeds in the area of the sighting. Recreational boaters were warned that intentionally approaching within 500 yards of the whale is prohibited and is in violation of federal law.

“While we understood the significant impact of the port closure, we were grateful for our long-established partnerships with our port partners,” said Capt. Andy Blomme, Sector Jacksonville commander.

Right whales offshore Florida

The North Atlantic right whale is a designated endangered species with approximately 350 right whales living in the northern Atlantic Ocean. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Yesterday’s events highlighted the fact that the Coast Guard’s stewardship role cannot be performed alone, and demonstrates the paramount importance of partnerships for protecting vulnerable marine species. As a result of the collective efforts of the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, the off course whale eventually found its way to safety and port operations were restored.

“NOAA’s partnership with the Coast Guard and others is essential to protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales,” said Eric Schwaab, NOAA assistant administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service. “Yesterday’s quick action to protect the right whale was a great example of this strong partnership at work.”

Fortuitously, Blomme and his staff had met with the NOAA Southeast U.S. Right Whale Coordinator just a week ago to discuss the possibility of a right whale entering the river and how they would handle that situation.

“These ties enabled us to make timely notification and react quickly to ensure the whale’s safety until it departed the river,” added Blomme.

The St. Johns River is within one of the seasonal management areas established by NOAA in 2008, and supported by Coast Guard and its partners. In these areas, a speed restriction comes into effect when whales are expected to migrate through the area, reducing the risk of ship collisions with North Atlantic right whales. These measures are just one example of managing human activities to reduce impacts to whales.

As the U.S. Coast Guard continues to meet the challenges that face our nation, including our 11 statutory missions, the service remains committed to the protection of our nation’s living ocean legacy including critical marine habitats and the endangered species that are dependent on them.

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