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Saving the whales - literally

Sharon Young is Marine Issues Field Director with The Humane Society of the United States

This spring, endangered North Atlantic right whales, including mothers and newborns, are traveling up the Atlantic seaboard from waters off the Georgia coast.

Less than 500 of these majestic whales remain on earth. Crucial federal protections, some of which are set to expire this year, are preventing their extinction.

But while right whales are on the move once again, Washington is not.

 As right whales cross busy shipping lanes and port entrances while making their long journey, they risk being hit by ships. Federal regulations on ship speeds put in place in 2008 have reduced the chances of large ships killing whales. Simply by slowing down, ship operators can save whales' lives.

Now that a key migratory season for the whales is upon us, there has been a surge in sightings of right whales off Massachusetts as they gather to feed after a winter of fasting. On just one day recently, government researchers spotted 60 right whales.

More are on the way. It is a spectacular sight, and should give comfort to countless millions of us humans who care about these leviathans.

 Before the ship speed rules, ship strikes were a leading cause of death for the species. Mothers and their young were the most common victims.

Now, federal rules require large ships to slow down within areas of the Atlantic where whales are most concentrated. Ships must slow to 10 knots when travelling through the whales' feeding areas off New England in the spring and early summer, in the southeastern calving areas during the winter, and along the migratory route through the mid-Atlantic in the months during the whales' spring and fall migrations.

Without a doubt, these protective speed limits work. No right whales have been found dead from vessel collisions in protected areas since the regulations went into effect.

In fact, the risk of a right whale getting hit and killed by a ship has been reduced by as much as 90 percent, according to one recent study.

Ship strikes are brutal. They cause fractures to whales' skulls and spines and can cause massive blood loss. Calves are often left to fend for themselves when their mothers die.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources reported that 20 right whale calves were born this year. These new births are welcome additions, and the whales will contribute to the recovery of the species, assuming these newborns live long enough to reproduce.

 But it's unclear that they will. Despite the success of the ship speed rules, the rules are set to expire at the end of the year.

The Humane Society of the United States is part of a coalition of animal welfare and environmental groups that has petitioned the government to extend the ship speed rules beyond the expiration date.

 In the last five years, we've gained so much with the ship speed rules in place. The species is making a slow recovery, birth rates are improving and no whales have died in protected areas.

It would be wrong to lose our investment in this species to inaction. The HSUS and its coalition partners will continue to press the Obama administration to extend ship speed rules while these animals struggle for survival.