International Yacht Race Charts Course To Avoid Endangered Whales
After an exhausting journey of more than 4500 nautical miles of intense high sea racing, the vessels participating in the Volvo Ocean Race are now approaching Boston, on the 6th leg of this global race. The route to Boston, has presented a further challenge; to plot a course that reduces the risk of collision with one of the world’s most critically endangered whales, the North Atlantic right whale, of which there are fewer than 400 individuals left.
The Volvo Ocean Race vessels will sail entirely outside the Seasonal Managed Areas for right whales and have voluntarily agreed to avoid transiting through any portion of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in an effort to reduce risks of collisions with whales.
Right whales are slow moving and often travel just below the surface, a behavior that has left them particularly vulnerable to the increasing levels of vessel traffic along the eastern seaboard of the United States. A recent incident involving a federal research vessel from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that hit a whale, shows the high risk of a collision with a boat even when it is manoeuvred by highly trained staff.
WDCS congratulates the race organizers for this progressive and cautious decision. “While this does not completely eliminate the risk of colliding with a whale during this leg altogether, it provides a significant reduction in risk and demonstrates a commitment from the race organizers which we hope organizers of similar events around the world will follow. We call on the sailors and organizers to be extremely cautious and do all they can to watch out for whales and act accordingly when whales are observed” says Regina Asmutis-Silvia, conservation biologist at WDCS.
The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the region off the Boston coastline is a critical feeding area for a number of large whale species including the North Atlantic right whale. While a record 39 North Atlantic right whale calves have been born this year, human induced mortalities from vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements continue to hamper the recovery of this species.
After many years of campaigning, WDCS welcomed the decision by the US government to impose legislation in December 2008 when the National Marine Fisheries Service enacted a rule to reduce Ship Strikes to North Atlantic Right Whales. The rule requires a 10knots seasonal speed limit through specific right whale habitats, including large portions of the Gulf of Maine as well as the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, east of Boston. While sailing, these racing boats often move at speeds of 25knots or faster, presenting a risk to whales, and to the racers, should a collision occur.
“The survival of each individual is critical to the survival of this species” continued Asmutis-Silvia of WDCS. “These animals routinely feed just below the surface, out of sight, but not out of harms way” said Asmutis “The only means to reduce risk is to slow down, or avoid known right whale habitats”.
WDCS is calling on all boat and vessel operators to report sightings of right whales to the National Marine Fisheries Sightings Advisory System in the US (T. 1-978-585-8473) so that the race organisers can quickly communicate with the vessels racing.
WDCS, has been environmental partner of Team Russia which participated in the race under the banner of “We sail for the Whale” until it had to suspend racing end of December due to the global financial crises. ‘We Sail for the Whale’ is an international programme from WDCS involving whale-watch operators, sailors and sailing organizations around the world, working together to raise awareness of the need for safe homes for whales and dolphins, protected areas where they can feed, breed and take shelter. The campaign can be joined at http://www.whales.org