Right whale calf struck by vessel found dead off Georgia coast

Oceana analysis found nearly 80 percent of vessels were violating speed limits at time of vessel strike
A dead, floating North Atlantic right whale calf off the coast of Georgia
A dead, floating North Atlantic right whale calf off the coast of Georgia | Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service
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A North Atlantic right whale calf that was struck by a vessel sometime in early 2024 has been found dead off of the coast of Savannah, Georgia, U.S.A.

The right whale calf was first identified in January, with videos shared on social media showing several propeller wounds to the calf’s head. At the time, a NOAA Fisheries biologist said the wounds would likely be fatal. 

“The whale is likely to die as a result,” NOAA said. “We will continue to work with authorized responders to monitor this calf and further document its injuries.”

Now, NOAA is reporting that the body of the injured right whale calf has been positively identified stranded on Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia. NOAA said the carcass has been scavenged by sharks but had the same unique injuries as the whale first identified as struck by the boat in January. 

The discovery marks the third death of a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale so far in 2024. In late January, a whale was found dead off the coast of Edgartown, Massachusetts, due to an entanglement in fishing gear, and in early February, a different whale was found dead likely due to an apparent vessel strike off the coast of Savannah.

The latest discovery has renewed calls from environmentalists to take action on ships violating mandatory speed limits. NOAA proposed vessel speed limits to protect right whales in July 2022, expanding mandatory seasonal speed limits for vessels above a certain length. Since then, NOAA has been stepping up its enforcement of speed limits on vessels and has issued USD 1.1 million (EUR 1 million) in fines over the right whale-related speed limits since 2021.

Despite those limits, an analysis by environmental group Oceana released in January 2024 found that nearly 80 percent of vessels violated the speed limit during the period the latest right whale was struck by a boat. According to the analysis, 79 percent of boats 65 feet and greater exceeded the speed limit in mandatory slow zones, with one boat traveling as fast as 35.8 knots, more than three times the limit. 

“Speeding boats and whales are a deadly mix; it’s no different than allowing an 18-wheeler to plow through a school zone,” Oceana Campaign Director Gib Brogan said in the analysis.

The latest dead right whale calf has Oceana renewing its call for more focus on enforcing speed limits.

“Our government already knows what to do to protect these critically endangered whales, so why are they sitting on it?” Oceana Senior Field Representative Hermina Glass-Hill said in a release. “Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and President Biden need to immediately release the updated vessel speed rule their own agency proposed nearly two years ago. Until they do, this right whale’s death and the future ones to come are on their watch.”

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