An extreme overreach would be a suitable way to describe a regulatory proposal to ease the impact of fishing vessel strikes on the dwindling right whale population.
NOAA proposed earlier this year 10-knot speed limit rules from Maine to Florida along the coast east to 100 miles into the ocean. Informational webinars were held over the summer with public comments accepted until Oct. 31. The rules are expected to move ahead as proposed. The specifics include 10-knot speed restrictions along the Maryland, Delaware and Virginia coasts from Nov. 1-May 30. These restrictions will double the amount travel time it takes for vessels to reach the offshore fishing grounds about 60 miles from port. With fuel costs and daily practical concerns, the worries are robust.
The good news is the creation of seasonal speed zones do not include the summer season, but the impact will nonetheless be felt in the spring on charter boats. Additionally, and this is a major concern, NOAA has the right to impose the speed restrictions in areas where a right whale was reported as sighted offshore. Because of the consequences, the reality is no charter or commercial fishing boat captain will report these sightings out of fear for the impact on their livelihoods. It’s understandable.
Over the last 23 years, NOAA data finds there have been “confirmed eight events in which North Atlantic right whales were struck by boats less than 65 feet long … in seven of these incidents, the vessel operators did not see the whale prior to the strike. In another, the boat passengers sighted the whale too late to avoid the collision.” In supporting documents, NOAA has acknowledged “a one in a million chance” of a vessel striking a right whale along the East Coast.
It’s difficult to find the logic in imposing these seven-month restrictions at those rates. It’s concerning to learn the Atlantic right whale population sits now at under 350, including less than 100 breeding females, and is now considered endangered. Over the last five years, there have been 91 right whale deaths – many from natural causes but other reasons identified as human interactions such as entanglements or vessel strikes.
Conservation of marine habitat should always be a focus of regulatory agencies like NOAA, but it should not be overplayed to extremes and harm livelihoods. There is a potential to hurt recreational and commercial fishermen with this proposal and the rule change does not represent the appropriate balance between protecting marine mammals as well as the economic sustainability of an important industry up and down the coast.