The government of US President Joe Biden has proposed an expansion of mandatory vessel speed limits off the East Coast in an effort to protect endangered right whales from ship strikes.

NOAA Fisheries announced that the proposed amendments would also extend the rules for the first time to smaller vessels of between 11 to 20 metres in length.

The agency, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), launched the rulemaking process five years after scientists declared an “unusual mortality event” when North Atlantic right whales began dying in elevated numbers.

Interactions with humans – particularly vessel strikes and fishing entanglements – are the leading cause of death, though most of the deaths have been in Canadian waters.

After population decline, the latest preliminary estimate suggests there are fewer than 350 North Atlantic whales left, making it one of the most endangered whale species in the world.

The latest move by NOAA Fisheries comes after long-standing pressure from environmental groups that have claimed that existing speed limits have not been enough to protect the endangered species.

The agency aims to expand the limits of current seasonal speed limits, capping vessels at 10 knots, that are scattered along key areas of the East Coast.

NOAA Fisheries also released a draft of a roadmap aimed at tackling another key threat to the right whales: entanglement with fishing gear.

The document will outline ways to use ropeless, or on-demand, fishing gear in the commercial fishing industry of the US East Coast, leveraging lessons from fisheries that have put them to use.

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“These two efforts are part of our North Atlantic Right Whale Road to Recovery, a strategy that encapsulates all of our ongoing work across the agency and in collaboration with our partners and stakeholders to conserve and rebuild the North Atlantic right whale population,” said Janet Coit, who is both assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries and acting assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere at NOAA.

“Despite the many challenges we face, including climate change, we must find solutions to mitigate the threats to marine mammals while supporting the livelihoods and economies of our fishing communities who put healthy food on our tables.”

Environmental groups that have been suing the Biden administration to do more for the right whales applauded the proposed rulemaking.

“We are glad that NOAA is finally taking action to protect both whales and boaters,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s North American office.