House Passes Important New Protections for Whales

New protections include measures to reduce vessel collisions with large whales and new programs aimed at reducing chronic underwater noise from vessels. If enacted, they would amount to the most substantial new legislative measures for marine mammals in years.

Researchers examine a dead blue whale killed from a collision by a ship.

Credit: Craig Hayslip, Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted in support of a slew of new protections for whales and marine mammals. These protections include measures to reduce vessel collisions with large whales and new programs aimed at reducing chronic underwater noise from vessels. If enacted, they would amount to the most substantial new legislative measures for marine mammals in years.


The measures came via an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY22 (NDAA) filed by Representative Rick Larsen (D-WA), and co-sponsored by Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona; Reps. Derek Kilmer, Suzan DelBene, Marilyn Strickland, and Kim Schrier of Washington; and Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California.

The amendment is based on legislation originally contained within Chairman’s Grijalva’s Oceans Based Climate Solutions Act, itself important legislation that I have discussed previously. The House approved Rep. Larsen’s amendment through a bloc vote, and final passage of the FY22 NDAA occurred by a vote of 316-113, a strong bi-partisan show of support.

NRDC thanks these Representatives for their leadership to address the high rates of mortality suffered by whales due to vessel collisions and to advance solutions to reduce the impacts of vessel traffic, disturbance, and noise on imperiled marine mammals. More than 30 conservation organizations and aquariums endorsed Rep. Larsen’s amendment, including: NRDC, Oceana, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Defenders of Wildlife, Humane Society Legislative Fund, The Humane Society of the United States, Conservation Law Foundation, Friends of the Earth, Animal Welfare Institute, Ocean Conservation Research, International Marine Mammal Project – Earth Island Institute, Environmental Defense Center, Environmental Investigation Agency, Earthjustice, Center for Biological Diversity, Marine Mammal Alliance Nantucket, Oceanic Preservation Society, Seattle Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, Oregon Coast Aquarium, National Aquarium, New England Aquarium, the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, New York Aquarium, Benioff Ocean Initiative, Sanctuary Education Advisory Specialists, Inland Ocean Coalition, NY4WHALES, Gotham Whale, and Cetacean Society International. 

The Senate version of the NDAA (S. 2792) was just filed and will likely be taken up by in that chamber in short order. NRDC hopes to see similar leadership from marine mammal champions in the Senate to ensure these protections are included in a final bill.

Rep. Larsen’s amendment would:

  1. Reduce the risk of vessel strikes of vulnerable whales: Each year, scores of large whales are killed when they are struck by vessels transiting their habitats. Slowing vessels in important habitat areas is proven to reduce whale mortality. This amendment directs NOAA to identify high-risk habitat areas where vessel speeds can be lowered to protect vulnerable marine mammals from vessel collision and other stressors.
  2. Assist ports to establish programs that minimize vessel impacts on marine mammals: Ports can play a significant role in minimizing interactions between vessels and marine mammals. For example, the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, along with the Northwest Seaport Authority, helped to launch a new program to reduce vessel noise and disturbance on endangered Southern Resident orcas, and the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, New York, and others have instituted vessel slow-down programs to reduce air pollution with the co-benefits of reducing vessel noise and ship-strike risk. The amendment establishes a new grant fund to assist ports in establishing or expanding programs that reduce threats to marine mammals from shipping and port operations.
  3. Promote research, development, and deployment of innovative ship technologies to reduce vessel noise: Commercial shipping is the primary source of harmful underwater noise in the ocean. This amendment creates a competitive grant program within the Maritime Administration to spur research, development, and deployment of technologies that can effectively quiet ships.
  4. Share taxpayer-supported ship-quieting technologies: For decades, the Navy has developed technologies to significantly reduce the noise of its vessels. The amendment requires a report on unclassified technologies that reduce underwater noise, and the feasibility of incorporating such technologies in non-military public vessels.
  5. Increase detection of whales in real time to mitigate harmful interactions: Vessel traffic, offshore wind construction, fishing, and other activities can threaten vulnerable marine mammals by increasing the risk of vessel collisions, entanglement, or disruption of vital behaviors. Technologies like acoustic monitoring, autonomous vessels, and drones can detect whales in real time and deliver locational information to ocean users so that impacts can be avoided. The amendment would direct NOAA to establish a near-real-time monitoring and mitigation program, with an initial focus on the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
  6. Invest in measuring and tracking underwater noise pollution: The Ocean Noise Reference Station Network, a NOAA-led partnership program to monitor ambient underwater sound, is critical for mapping and measuring underwater sound to protect and manage marine life. The bill authorizes appropriations to expand the Network beyond its current 12 locations, including by leveraging federal and non-federal monitoring systems that comprise the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS).


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