Last week, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries held a robust oversight hearing on the negative impacts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) proposed changes to the North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction Rule. Recreational anglers and boaters were well-represented by National Marine Manufacturers Association President Frank Hugelmeyer and Captain Fred Gamboa of Andreas’ Toy Charters in New Jersey. Other witnesses on the panel were: NOAA Deputy Administrator Janet Coit; American Pilots’ Association Executive Director Clayton Diamond, and Associate Vice President of Ocean Conservation Science Dr. Jessica Redfern for the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at New England Aquarium.
Everyone in the hearing room agreed: conserving North Atlantic right whales is important. The recreational fishing and boating community is committed to finding technological solutions with the goal of mitigating the risk of vessel strikes to all marine mammals, with special attention to North Atlantic right whales.
NOAA is proposing sweeping changes to its existing vessel speed rule that will have drastic economic consequences and safety implications for the fishing and boating community, including:
- A mandatory 10-knot (11 mph) speed restriction to include vessels 35 feet and larger (down from 65 feet).
- An expansion of the existing Seasonal Speed Zones (SSZ) to span huge swaths of the Atlantic Ocean, from Massachusetts to central Florida.
- A 10-knot speed restriction up to 90 miles out from shore and in some instances, for up to 7 months of the year.
Members from both sides of the aisle expressed concern for the wide-ranging impacts this rule would have on human safety, recreation, tourism and maritime traffic.
“Unfortunately, NOAA is promulgating policies that do very little for the right whale, but which could be devastating to all types of boating and shipping activity on the East Coast,” said Chairman Cliff Bentz (R-Ore.).
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) highlighted a recent red snapper fishing trip he took 80 miles off the coast of Louisiana. “It would take me about seven hours to get out to this spot going 10 knots which is very concerning, and the reality in a situation like that is that what’s going to happen is that most boaters aren’t going to go,” said Congressman Graves. “It has an impact on the number of folks who go out boating. It would have an impact on the economy, on tourism, and bait shops, and hotels and everything else that happens.”
Congresswoman Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) voiced concern for similar vessel speed restrictions spreading to other coasts, saying, “Alaska is very dependent on fishing and tourism with many small charter operators whose operations can be disrupted by slow or unclear speed limits. I really appreciated what Commander Diamond was talking about in terms of safety. When you’re out in the tides and currents and winds, you really have to have some amount of speed in order to maintain control of your vessel.” She continued, “Right now we have a lawsuit regarding orcas in Washington that is affecting our trollers in Sitka in Southeast Alaska. So, I’m concerned about this trend.”
Rep. Peltola’s concerns of unnecessary vessel speed restrictions metastasizing are well-founded. The Natural Resources Defense Council and five other environmental advocacy groups have petitioned NOAA to establish a year-round 10-knot speed limit for all boats traveling in the Rice’s whale core distribution area. The petitioners seek to protect the Rice’s whale (a recently discovered endangered whale in the Gulf of Mexico) from vessel strikes and noise pollution. While the core habitat area is currently defined from Pensacola, Fla. to south of Tampa, it is likely the entire Gulf of Mexico will be declared essential habitat for Rice’s whales. The petitioners want NOAA to further limit public access to the Gulf of Mexico by prohibiting vessel transits at night among other extreme restrictions. Public comments on the petition are due by July 6.
On both coasts, small recreational boats are being lumped in unfairly with large ocean-going vessels such as cargo ships.
NOAA will sink our industry if they issue their flawed proposed rule in the Atlantic.
You may be wondering how you can help foster a balanced approach to protecting the endangered North Atlantic right whale while keeping the Atlantic Ocean open to commerce and America’s anglers and boaters. We encourage you to support the Protecting Whales, Human Safety, and the Economy Act of 2023 introduced by Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.), to prohibit NOAA from issuing a rule that modifies or replaces the North Atlantic Right Whale vessel strike reduction regulation until technological monitoring solutions recently authorized by Congress can help better track whales and avoid strikes.