Owners of boats as small as 35 feet all along the U.S. East Coast say NOAA Fisheries is unfairly targeting them with a proposed rule that would dramatically expand the areas designated to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, and that would require boaters to slow to 10 knots or less to avoid striking the animals during certain times of the year.
“It’s just stupid,” says Capt. Craig Thatcher, about what rushed revisions to the Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction Rule, changes that he and others feel are not well thought-out. Thatcher runs the 35-foot Bertram Never Enough out of Beaufort, North Carolina. “Fishermen are all talking about this. If you see one of these whales, you just get out of the way unless you want to tear your damn boat up.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the proposed the revision to the rule on August 1 by publishing it in the Federal Register. NOAA Fisheries says the announcement continued a process that began at least as far back as January 2021 with an assessment report about the previous rule’s effectiveness. Many boaters and the nationwide organizations that represent them say that’s nonsense—they were blindsided by the new proposal.
“Nobody in the industry really knew this was coming,” says Chris Edmonston, vice president of public affairs at BoatUS, which was among a dozen organizations—including the American Sportfishing Association, Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation and National Marine Manufacturers Association—that sent a letter to NOAA Fisheries in late August, citing a “complete lack of coordination with affected industries.” The letter also warned that the proposed rule would affect thousands of recreational vessels, marinas and tackle shops.
“None of the groups that you would expect had any knowledge of this or any input into the rule,” Edmonston told Soundings.
Bruce Pohlot, conservation director for the International Game Fish Association, which also signed the letter, told Soundings the scope of the proposed changes was as startling as the fact that nobody knew they were coming.
“Some of the new slow-speed areas go out 60 miles,” Pohlot said. “They used to be in areas with a lot of traffic and big ships, like New York, but this is the whole coast.”
NOAA Fisheries acknowledges that the proposed changes would be significant, but says they are necessary to protect the whales from vessel collisions. The species has dwindled so much, NOAA Fisheries says, that it cannot recover if humans cause even one death or serious injury on average each year.
The agency also acknowledges that the proposed change would affect a larger number of recreational boaters and anglers than the current rule targets, but says that’s just the way things have to be because there are fewer than 350 of the whales remaining, including less than 100 reproductively active females that tend to be near the surface with their calves.
“If we thought that there was one key area where we were seeing a lot of strikes during a single season, we would have focused just on that, but it’s not what we’re seeing,” says Caroline Good, marine mammal ecologist with the Office of Protective Resources at NOAA Fisheries. “We have a problem that is coastwide and covers large swaths of the year.”
The new speed-restriction regions would be in effect from November 1 to May 30 in the Atlantic Zone that stretches as far north as Massachusetts; from April 1 to June 30 in the Great South Channel Zone east of there; from November 1 to April 30 in the North Carolina Zone; from November 1 to April 15 in the South Carolina Zone; and from November 15 to April 15 in the Southeast Zone that includes parts of Florida.
Previously, the zones were far smaller and did not affect boats smaller than 65 feet at all. Under the newly proposed rule, power and sailboats from 35 to 65 feet would have to reduce speed to 10 knots or less, unless there was a threat to the health, safety or life of a person on board; or a National Weather Service warning was issued for winds of gale force or greater.
Boats that exceeded 10 knots without those conditions being present would have to file a report within 48 hours stating the reason they cruised faster. According to a spokeswoman for NOAA, its Office of Law Enforcement could use techniques such as patrols, electronic vessel monitoring and criminal and civil investigations to enforce compliance.
“We are concerned that they’re going to use AIS to track violations,” Edmonston says. “We think that will suppress the use of AIS systems—people will just turn them off.”
NOAA fisheries says that since the previous speed-restriction rule affecting boats 65 feet and larger went into effect in 2008, there have been 12 right whale deaths or serious injuries involving vessel collisions in U.S. waters. Vessels smaller than 65 feet accounted for five of the 12 lethal strikes, the agency says, “demonstrating the significant risk this unregulated vessel size class can present to right whales.”
And, those documented strikes tell only part of the story, Good told Soundings. “We also have additional strikes involving vessels under 65 feet with whales from undetermined species. People do strike things—and these can be minor strike events that don’t lead to mortality or a vessel being disabled—and they don’t know what they hit.”
But according to many boaters who submitted public comments on the proposed revisions to the rule, those are not good enough reasons for such sweeping changes. More than 1,200 comments were logged as of early September.
Quite a few charter fishermen made the same argument that Thatcher makes, saying that being forced to slow to 10 knots will effectively doom the charter-fishing business. Thatcher, for instance, told Soundings he currently runs at least 40 miles at 18 to 20 knots to get to the fishing grounds off North Carolina for vermilion snapper and triggerfish during the targeted times of year. Slowing to 10 knots would make the round-trip ride so long, there would be no time left in the day for actual fishing. “Who’s going to pay me to take them on a 10-hour boat ride?” he says.
Capt. Robert Bogan of the 90-foot charter fishing boat Gambler out of Point Pleasant, New Jersey, wrote that his family has been on the region’s waters for three generations “and has never once come close to striking a whale. Our raised pilothouse gives us a clear view of our surroundings, and even when we do treat our passengers to the opportunity of a whale sighting, we maintain a huge distance from these amazing mammals.”
Scott Starratt wrote that he’s been fishing offshore for 47 years and has seen right whales only once. He told regulators: “Six hours to get to the ledge? Guess I’ll go buy a 34-foot boat and sell my 35. Total lunacy.”
Good says NOAA Fisheries recognizes how these boaters feel, but adds that those feelings do not change the dire situation the whales face. “There are mariners who have been out on the water for years, and they have never hit a whale,” she says. “It’s a very challenging problem because these events occur infrequently, but the totality of these events is just hammering this population and impeding the species’ ability to recover.”
Pohlot says the real problem is that the remaining whales are failing to reproduce. “Their reproduction rates are way too low. That has nothing to do with boats hitting them,” he says. “So why put all this money into trying to slow boats down? What if we put all that money into trying to tag every single whale and then loading that into the AIS system so every boat can see them?”
He added that the information NOAA Fisheries has provided to defend the proposed rule raises more questions than it answers. “I totally agree, we have to do something about the whales, but I don’t know that this is the most sensible thing to do.”
For now, Edmonston says, boating and fishing organizations are asking for a time extension before the new rule is implemented. As this story was published, NOAA Fisheries extended the public comment period to October 31. When the extension was announced, some marine companies made quick efforts to educate boat owners about the rule. Viking Yachts in New Gretna, New Jersey, for instance, launched a campaign to raise awareness about the impending changes, which includes a link to the Federal eRulemaking Portal (click here), the primary way for people to voice their concerns about the amendments.
“This is a monumental extension of a closure area,” says Edmonston. “It’s in everybody’s best interest to protect the environment. We just think there are more viable ways of addressing this issue than shutting off the entire East Coast.”
This article was originally published in the November 2022 issue.