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East Coast facing 10-knot speed zones

The federal proposal is meant to protect endangered right whales during certain times of year

The federal proposal is meant to protect endangered right whales during certain times of year

After eight years of study, the federal government is ready to decide whether to set speed limits for boats 65 feet or larger to try to keep them from hitting endangered right whales outside East Coast ports. The National Marine Fisheries Service expects a decision by spring after August hearings this summer in Jacksonville, Fla., Baltimore and Boston.

The NMFS is proposing a 10-knot speed zone extending between 30 and 80 nautical miles seaward of ports from Jacksonville to Boston at times of the year when the right whales are nearby. Though it prefers the boats go slower, the NMFS also was asking for comments on an alternative 12- or 14-knot speed limit.

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most critically endangered whale species in the world. The population of North Atlantic rights has dwindled to between 300 and 350, and if the whales don’t stop dying in collisions with yachts and ships and from tangling in commercial fishing gear, they are headed for extinction, says Greg Silber, NMFS coordinator of recovery activities for endangered whales.

Right whale deaths from vessel strikes have averaged one or two a year over two decades, and “the overall mortality rate increased between 1980 and 1998 to a level of at least 4 percent per year, a rate at which survival of this species is not sustainable,” NMFS says. The speed limit would affect not just ships but whale-watching vessels, headboats, sportfishing yachts, megayachts, fast ferries and others.

In March 2005 a 43-foot yacht motoring at 20 knots ran over a 40-foot right whale seven miles off Cumberland Island, Ga., nearly severing its tail and likely killing it. Silber says conservationists at the hearings asked NMFS to push the size limit of boats affected by the proposed speed limits below 65 feet to cover more recreational vessels.

“[The rule] is going to have a tremendously negative impact here,” says Mike Bradley, director of North Carolina Boating Industry Services. Headboats running out of Morehead City and Beaufort would have to slow down. “They’re depending on getting out to a location so they can give their customers four hours of fishing,” he says. That won’t happen motoring at 10 knots. Charter and other sportfishing boats that run offshore during the Nov. 1 to April 30 right-whale season also would be affected. Boats 65 feet or bigger “make up a third of the sportfishing boats we find in [some of] the tournaments,” Bradley says. It would “wreak havoc” on them, he says.

In the Southeast, the proposed speed limits would apply from Nov. 15 to April 15 in waters landward of 80 degrees 51.6 minutes west longitude from north of Brunswick, Ga., to south of Jacksonville — the calving grounds. The restrictions would apply from Nov. 1 to April 30 in waters up to 30 nautical miles off the ports of New York and New Jersey; Delaware Bay (Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del.); the entrance to Chesapeake Bay (Hampton Roads, Va., and Baltimore); Morehead City, Beaufort and Wilmington, N.C.; Georgetown and Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and the entrance to Block Island Sound. Farther north, restrictions would apply from Jan. 1 to May 15 through all of Cape Cod Bay (Mass.); from March 1 to April 30 in a box about 50 by 50 nautical miles to the north and east of Cape Cod; and from April 1 to July 31 in the Great South Channel.

In addition to these seasonal restrictions, the NMFS could apply temporary speed restrictions in 15-day increments in East Coast waters wherever three or more right whales are spotted.

Speaking at the Baltimore hearing, naval architect David Laurent Giles said the rule could have the unintended effect of interfering with big-boat events like the Volvo Ocean Race, depending on when the 70-foot sailboats race into and out of Baltimore and Annapolis, Md.

Hal Parsons, dockmaster at Thunderbolt Marina near Savannah, says the rule would put the brakes on large yachts making the outside passage to Florida in November and returning north in spring. Many captains now try to run offshore non-stop between Charleston, S.C., and Florida, which would take them through several of the 10-knot speed zones. “A fishing captain told me that during tournament season he sees lines of yachts offshore going south or north,” he says. “If someone’s going from Charleston to Florida in a 70-foot sportfish, they’re not going to be too keen about slowing down.”

In the Southeast, concern for the right whale already is affecting smaller boats. John Lowe, director of the Jacksonville Marine Trades Association, says protection of the right whale has been a factor in slowing down permitting for refurbishing artificial reefs off northeast Florida, the right whale’s calving grounds.

Thunderbolt’s Parsons has been asked to put up signs in his marina telling boaters about right whales and warning them that it is against the law to intentionally approach within 500 yards of one. “The right whale is gaining a lot of attention here,” he says.

Last January an administrative law judge reversed a state decision to issue a permit for 800 slips in two marinas, three public docks and 90 private docks in Cumberland Harbour, a proposed high-end residential community in St. Marys, Ga. The judge, among other things, told developer Land Resources Companies of Atlanta to strengthen measures to protect right whales and their offspring from Cumberland’s boats during the November-to-April calving season.

Having a right-whale protection plan is a new fact of life for marina developers seeking permits to build in northeast coastal Florida and southeast Georgia, says Mike DeMell, an environmental consultant who represents Cumberland Harbour. DeMell put together a North Atlantic right whale protection plan for Cumberland — it will have to be strengthened now — and he is putting together a similar one for Liberty Harbour, a 450-slip marina proposed for Brunswick, Ga.

In its marina permit application, Cumberland agreed to:

• educate boaters about right whales and their calves: where they are found, what their habits are, when they are in the area

• tell boaters that they would be asked to leave the marina if reported in violation of a law against coming within 500 yards of a whale

• keep updated on whale-pod sightings so the dockmaster can post bulletins about where the whales are and advise boaters to steer clear of them, or even stay in port if the pod is near a traffic corridor

• advise oceangoing transient boaters arriving or departing the marina during calving season to use travel corridors a mile or two offshore or beyond 80 degrees west longitude, where whales sightings are fewest, or if they aren’t going to use the travel corridors to restrict their speed to 10 knots — the speed NMFS recommends when whales are around

• set aside slips for enforcement, research and entanglement vessels

DeMell says he’s also in the early stages of investigating whether he can pull together funding from ports, shippers, marinas and the Navy to put out acoustic buoys to pinpoint the location of whale pods by listening for their voices. Currently, aircraft fly over the calving grounds looking for pods, but they don’t fly at night or in bad weather and aren’t always available. DeMell hopes that — best case — the buoys could be used to set up temporary speed zones around the pods and replace the fixed, season-long speed zones proposed by NMFS.

“That’s what we’re trying to do,” he says. “It’s still in its infancy.”

Whatever the outcome of DeMell’s work, Amy Knowlton, senior right-whale researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston, says speed restrictions on smaller vessels — pleasure boats — may become necessary in northeast Florida and Georgia because of the growing number of boats there and because baby whales are vulnerable to serious injury in collisions with even small boats.

The World Shipping Council, in comments submitted a year ago, said the speed limits could disrupt shipping schedules and might not have any effect on the number of right whales hit by ships. However, the NMFS’ Silber says studies have shown that speed limits have had a significant impact on reducing the number of boat strikes on manatees in Florida.

He says NMFS is committed to adopting a final rule, effective before summer 2007. “If we do nothing, the right whale will decline further and move closer toward extinction,” he says.