An expanded speed limit zone aims to protect right whales, but angers recreational boaters. Photo: Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

Fishing & Boating Industry Pushes Back on NOAA’s Proposed Offshore Speed Limits

The population of North Atlantic right whales is in serious trouble, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says it’s almost entirely the fault of boaters. But their proposed solution—expanding Atlantic Coast speed limits to include smaller recreational vessels—isn’t popular with the charter fishing business or recreational boating advocates.

Back in July we reported the details of NOAA’s proposed changes, which extend the current mandatory seasonal speed limits of 10 knots or less in designated areas of the ocean and would apply to most vessels measuring 35 to 65 feet in length, instead of 65 feet and over.

There has been an Unusual Mortality Event in place for right whales since 2017, amid a significant die-off. NOAA says that between vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear, all right whale deaths between 2003 and 2018 for which a cause of death could be determined, the cause was human activity. At least four right whales have been killed or seriously injured by boat strikes in the last two-and-a-half years.

NOAA explains adding 35-65 foot vessels to the speed limit is necessary because nearly half of the 12 documented boat strike deaths occurring since 2008 have come from boats under 65 feet long.

But a coalition of organizations including the American Sportfishing Association, National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), BoatUS Foundation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Coastal Conservation Association and others sent a letter to NOAA asking that the agency pauses its proposal, claiming the new rules are flawed. The organizations say NOAA’s data overstate the risk of smaller boats to whales because actual population density along the coast is lower than NOAA’s predictions.

They also say the expansion of the speed limit and restricted areas would cause irreparable damage to the outdoor economy.

“NOAA’s proposed rule unfortunately underestimates the very real economic impacts on the recreational boating and fishing industry, the largest contributor to the nation’s $689 billion outdoor recreation economy. The rule will bring the vast majority of boating and fishing trips along the Atlantic Coast to a screeching halt, impacting millions of Americans who go boating each year,” said NMMA President Frank Hugelmeyer. “We urge the agency to pause its rule making process and engage with our industry to determine a better path forward that protects the North Atlantic right whale and the health of the recreational boating and fishing industry.”

What would these organizations like to see instead? “More exploration of technology that can deliver real-time monitoring of individual right whales is needed. It is feasible to gather real-time location information on a significant portion of the right whale population and disseminate information to mariners and other vessel operators, which would apply empirically-based, targeted precaution instead of excessively severe measures that do not accurately reflect actual risk nor can be adequately enforced,” they write in a NMMA press release.

NOAA sought public comment from August to the end of September, but got such an outpouring of comments and requests for extension that the public comment period was extended until Monday, Oct. 31.

-Meg Walburn Viviano