Can NOAA’s proposed speed reduction rule save the whales?

Region’s charter fishing industry says rule would cripple their businesses

By: - August 7, 2023 5:00 am

A North Atlantic right whale with propeller scars. (NOAA)

East Coast waters could get a lot slower for local sportfishing boats and other mariners later this year. 

That’s if National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service approves a proposal to impose speed restrictions of 10 knots or less offshore for boats as small as 35 feet in length November through April. Ten knots is roughly 11 mph.

NOAA officials are hoping to prevent collisions with endangered North Atlantic right whales along the Eastern Seaboard. But the plan has critics. Opponents claim it would create a ripple effect that would cripple multiple industries and unnecessarily decimate small businesses.

Charter boat captain Rick Bellavance, shown with a 10-pound tautog caught off Block Island, is among those who commented on the proposed vessel speed reduction rules. (Courtesy of Rick Bellavance/Priority Charters LLC)

Among them is Capt. Rick Bellavance, owner/operator of Priority Charters in Narragansett, president of the Rhode Island Party & Charter Boat Association, and vice chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council. Bellavance was one of the 90,092 people or organizations along the East Coast to submit commentary to NOAA on the proposed changes by the Oct. 31, 2022, deadline. 

Bellavance said the reduced speeds would force recreational charter fishing trips to take longer to get to prime offshore fishing grounds, or they would have to travel shorter distances to other locations. If whales are not known to be in the area at the time, he said, clients will be turned off to the charter fishing experience altogether.

NOAA is reviewing all comments and will make a decision by the end of the year.

“I’m all for doing what we can to protect the North Atlantic right whale,” Bellavance said. “It’s an endangered species, and it’s in very low quantities right now. But I also think there’s a way we can use technology to balance the regulations that we’ve put in place and the protections that we offer to the right whale. There has to be a sweet spot, instead of a blanket closure.” 

Significant impact on charter fishing 

NOAA estimates there are less than 350 North Atlantic right whales left and fewer than 100 reproductively active females. These whales migrate to the coastal waters of New England during the late winter and early spring to feed in an area with large numbers of vessels. They are commonly observed feeding at or just below the water’s surface on zooplankton prey.

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University of Rhode Island Department of Ocean Engineering Chair James Miller, who conducts research on ocean acoustics, said it makes sense that speed restrictions would be effective in reducing the risk to whales. 

“Usually, it’s the container ships sailing by at 20 knots that are the likely culprits in ship strikes. They can’t slow down quickly. They can’t turn easily. But they are crucial to our world’s economy — 90% of our trade is by sea,” he said.

Whales at the sea surface are susceptible to vessel strikes because most of a ship’s noise comes from the ship’s propellers on the stern, and whales get hit by the bow of the vessel before they have time to detect it, Miller said.

There has to be a sweet spot, instead of a blanket closure.

– Capt. Rick Bellavance, president of the Rhode Island Party & Charter Boat Association

But boat handling and safety could be compromised by traveling at speeds of 10 knots or less, especially through rough waters, Bellavance said. He also considered enforceability of any new rules to be a burden that would set rule followers against rule breakers. 

NOAA estimated the economic impacts to the charter industries on the Eastern Seaboard at $46 million per year, which Bellavance believes is significantly underestimated. Nearly 90% of the economic impacts are expected to occur from Maine to North Carolina and about 26% of that is in the passenger category where the charter fishing industry falls. Bellavance suggested this could be better mitigated with more appropriate rolling speed reduction zones.

NOAA Fisheries’ proposed changes would modify a number of requirements in its current rule. It would broaden the spatial boundaries and timing of seasonal speed restriction areas, called Seasonal Management Areas (SMA), creating larger boundaries of reduced speeds along the entire eastern seaboard. The areas would include the coast of Rhode Island from the eastern tip of Long Island, enveloping Nantucket and to Cape Cod, while extending seaward 90 nautical miles, said NOAA public affairs specialist Allison Ferreira.

The changes would also permanently set the speeds for vessels starting at 35 feet in these areas to no more than 10 knots between Nov. 1 and May 1 during peak whale migration and calving periods. A Dynamic Speed Zone would have mandatory speed restrictions when whales are known to be present. 

Exemptions include certain vessel categories, like military vessels, federally owned or operated vessels, and vessels actively engaged in law enforcement or search and rescue activity. A vessel also can exceed the speed limit to flee bad weather. 

NOAA officials said vessel collisions are the leading cause of death for the North Atlantic right whale. Since 2017, there have been “98 right whale deaths, serious injuries, and morbidities (sublethal injury or illness) in U.S. and Canadian waters,” Ferreira wrote in an email. 

Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, co-authored a letter with 11 other industry associations that oppose NOAA’s changes.  The recreational boating industry boasts a $1.7 billion economic impact in the Ocean State exclusively, he said, with more than 36,500 boats, 7,069 jobs, and 381 businesses. Losing these benefits would be devastating to the recreational fishing and boating industry.

“And that’s only one use of the ocean” Angers said. “There’s also defense, there’s shipping, there’s cruise lines, but we’re the most affected stakeholders. We are all about public access to public places, but you can’t just shut it all down and treat a 35-foot boat just like we treat a 1,200-foot cargo ship.”

Angers said the sportfishing industry has an estimated 63,000 boats in the 12 states impacted by the proposed vessel speed reduction rule, which means his industry has more stakeholders than cruise lines, shipping companies or national security and defense.

“Vessels are built differently,” Angers said. “They can withstand different sea conditions at different speeds. But no, NOAA treats them all the same. That’s just not smart policy.”

Janet Coit, assistant administrator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, speaks at the Ocean Summit at Fort Adams State Park in Newport. (Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

Challenges ahead 

NOAA Administrator of Fisheries Janet Coit briefly mentioned the proposed speed reduction rules during her remarks at the Ocean Race Summit at Fort Adams State Park in Newport in May. That the ocean has rights was a central theme of the May 16 daylong summit during the Newport stopover of the round-the-world sailing race.

Coit, the former director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, told of her own experience observing a 42-year-old right whale named Medusa and her calf earlier this year off Cape Cod.

As big as a school bus and weighing around 70 tons, Medusa “plays an outsized role in the recovery of this magnificent species,” Coit said.

“These right whales are so rare that we cannot afford to lose even one if we are to prevent them from going extinct,” Coit added. “While it was a thrill to see Medusa and her calf, I also felt somber and sad because I’m aware of their plight.”

These right whales are so rare that we cannot afford to lose even one if we are to prevent them from going extinct.

– Janet Coit, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's administrator of fisheries

Although NOAA’s proposed rules do not apply to the sailing community, collisions between sailboats and marine mammals do happen. Data from a strike log compiled by the Marine Mammal Advisory Group using data from the International Whaling Commission, media reports, and surveys from the sailing community suggests at least half of reported collisions result in damage to the boat and injury or death of the animal. 

What happened on the next leg after Ocean Race teams departed Newport for Leg 5 of the race demonstrated just how complicated mitigating the threats facing marine mammals like Medusa and her calf will be. 

The 11th Hour Racing Team, the winners of Leg 4 upon their arrival in Newport and the ultimate winners of the Ocean Race, hit a suspected marine mammal on May 25 in the mid-North Atlantic. The collision occurred when the team’s 60-foot IMOCA boat, Mālama — a Hawaiian word meaning “to care and protect” — was approximately 750 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland. 

One 11th Hour crew member sustained a possible mild concussion while another injured his shoulder. The plight of the animal in the water is unknown.

Mālama was moving at about 33 mph at the time of the sudden impact.


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Annie Sherman
Annie Sherman

Annie Sherman is a freelance journalist, editor, and author who covers topics at the intersection of sustainability and the environment, local business, food culture, and travel. She lives in Newport.