Vessel speed restrictions to protect North Atlantic right whales – Author Interview

In an effort to protect the 500 remaining North Atlantic right whales alive today, a NOAA regulation required large vessels to reduce speed in areas seasonally occupied by the whales. A recently published PeerJ article showed that the policy of notifying speeding vessels in protected areas was effective in lowering their speeds, helping to protect the whales from ship collisions.

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Photo: NOAA

We felt it would be informative to ask Gregory Silber — coordinator of recovery activities for large whales with NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, and corresponding author on this study — a few questions on this work.

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PJ: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

GS: I am fortunate because I have had a career that I had hoped for. I wished to transition field research experience and training in science into resource management and policy positions. After over a decade doing field work – including work in Mexico on the ecology and distribution of one of the world’s rarest porpoises, studying the behavior and underwater sounds of humpback whales in Hawaii, and 10 seasons of work on high Arctic marine mammals – opportunities for something new came along. Although I loved (nearly) every minute of my time in the field, I wanted to devote a significant portion of my career to doing what I could to help protect the resources I’ve seen being threatened. So, I have enjoyed having positions involving establishing policy for reducing threat to whales and their habitats from human activities.

PJ: Can you briefly explain the research you published in PeerJ?

GS: In December 2008, vessel speed restrictions were established in certain areas and at certain times along the U.S. east coast to reduce the likelihood that endangered North Atlantic right whales would be struck and killed by ships. We remotely monitored vessels that utilized these areas to determine the level of compliance with the regulation and vessel operator responses to various compliance notification programs.

We found that simply making the regulated community aware of the requirements, including through targeted notification programs, were not sufficient to ensure widespread compliance with the regulation. Citations and fines were needed to more effectively accomplish this, and a handful of fines prompted more compliant behavior across the entire community. 

PJ: What surprised you the most with these results?

GS:There are a number of aspects of these data that I find interesting. First, because we were able to utilize an existing and readily available marine communications system with high signal transmission rates, we were able to monitor the passage of every vessel in our study area. This resulted in a substantial database and provided considerable precision in our ship tracking.  It was also a highly cost-effective way to enforce the regulations.  Notification and enforcement through traditional means – vessels and personnel at sea – would have been prohibitively expensive.
To our knowledge, our data are among the first to characterize the response to a novel regulation by a large, diverse and multi-national community that encompassed a rather broad geographic area. In addition, we learned something of human behavior and the types of actions that motivate change (in this case, the reactions of individuals and businesses facing a new regulation). We believe these findings have application not only in the implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of environmental measures but in nearly any context where businesses or the pubic are regulated.

PJ: Where do you hope to go from here?

GS: We have several additional, somewhat related studies in the works.  Among other things, these involve continuing to assess measures to reduce ship collisions with whales and ways to improve outreach to specific vessels entering areas that are important large whale habitats. We will definitely be considering PeerJ to publish our results.

PJ: How would you describe your experience of our submission / review process?

GS: Responses from the journal were prompt and professional; peer-reviews were thorough; the academic editor handled the manuscript and provided reviews and feed back to us quickly.

PJ: Anything else you would like to talk about?

GS: Many thanks for your efforts to establish this journal, for making results available quickly, and for doing so in a professional manner. The business model of hard copy paper journals is outdated and hopefully a thing of our (grad school) past. Your approach allows rapid and open dissemination of information.

PJ: Thanks very much for your feedback!

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