Harris Seeks 10-Knot Rule Pause

OCEAN CITY — On the eve of the close of the public comment period on a proposed rule change to protect endangered north American right whales, Congressman Andy Harris called for a pause in the approach.

In an effort to save endangered North American right whales, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has proposed a 10-knot speed restriction for recreational and commercial vessels 35 feet in length or greater, down from the current 65 feet. The proposed rule change would expand the go-slow zones to include virtually the entire east coast out to a 90-mile radius and extend the zone restrictions as long as seven months out of the year.

Locally, virtually all of the fishing grounds frequented by recreational and commercial fishermen would fall under the 10-knot rule. Operating a vessel at a maximum of 10 knots would add several hours to a typical charter or private fishing trip.

NOAA announced the proposed rule change and opened a public comment period that expired Nov. 1. Many local recreational and commercial fishermen voiced their disdain over the proposed rule change, which could have devastating consequences for the local fishing industries.

“I represent Maryland’s beautiful 1st District, that includes thousands of miles of shoreline along the Chesapeake, Assawoman, Isle of Wight, Sinepuxent Bays and their tributaries, as well as along the Atlantic coastline,” Harris’s letter reads. “The people of the 1st District respect and cherish our coastlines where boating represents a way of life, from recreational to charter boating and fishing industries. Protecting and preserving the North Atlantic Right Whale is important and many of my constituents share the environmental concerns but developing the appropriate policy responses require a thorough examination of causality as well as the potential implications of proposed changes.”

In the letter, Harris suggests NOAA did not fully engage the recreational and commercial boating industries for input on the proposed 10-knot rule that could potentially cripple them. It’s important to note locally the 10-knot rule, if approved, would be in place from Nov. 1 to May 31, lessening the impact on the summer fishing season, but if a right whale was located off the mid-Atlantic coast at any time, the 10-knot rule could be implemented for as long as 15 days.

“That’s why I’m dismayed to hear from impacted constituents about the void of meaningful NOAA engagement with them in the development of the proposed amendments to the right whale vessel strike reduction rule,” the letter reads. “Therefore, I ask that NOAA pause or considerably extend the rulemaking process to properly conduct this stakeholder engagement and examine other possible anthropogenic causality such as the development of offshore wind turbines, which, apparently, NOAA has elevated above these other stakeholders.”

Harris in the letter said it appears NOAA’s proposed 10-knot rule change focused largely on the fishing industries despite a relative lack of scientific evidence of their contributions to right whale mortality. Instead, he suggested the development of offshore wind energy farms up and down the east coast including Maryland could be a culprit that needs further study.

“NOAA explicitly excluded meaningful consideration of the impacts of offshore wind construction and production to the right whale migratory and reproductive patterns,” the letter reads. “These loud offshore wind turbines may have significant auditory impacts to a right whale population, which are known to rely upon low frequency acoustic vocalizations for mating and other communication. Instead of considering this potential causality, NOAA decided offshore wind get separate consideration well after the comment period closes for these proposed amendments when NOAA plans publish a draft mitigation strategy for addressing the issue.”

The letter suggests bias in NOAA’s rule-making process that potentially harms the fishing industry while letting offshore wind off the hook, so to speak.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.