Congress Takes Notice Of Heavy-Handed Vessel Speed Restrictions

NOAA’s proposed 10-knot vessel speed restrictions along the Atlantic Coast have been bubbling for a year now. Today, Members of Congress from the Appropriations Committees to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to the Commerce Committee and Natural Resources Committee are paying attention to what could be the largest takeaway of public access in U.S. history.

The topic has struck a chord with the public, too. 90,000 Americans commented on NOAA’s proposed changes to the North Atlantic right whale vessel speed rule. And the Agency says it will take until the end of the year to sort through everything and deliver the final rule.

Under the proposal, boats 35 feet and greater cannot travel faster than 10 knots (11 mph) within a vast area extending from Massachusetts to central Florida, for up to 7 months out of the year and in some places up to 90 miles offshore. These proposed changes lack a data-driven approach to protecting the North Atlantic right whale and are based on inaccurate assumptions.

The recreational boating and fishing community is committed to protecting the North Atlantic right whale and has launched a  working group made up of diverse stakeholders who are focused on identifying, developing, and implementing technology and monitoring tools to mitigate the risk of vessel strikes to marine mammals. Boaters and anglers rely on clean waters , and we put our money where our mouth is. The boating and fishing industry is one of the leading drivers of conservation funding in the U.S., contributing over $8 billion in conservation and restoration funds since 1950.

There are numerous flaws in the proposed rule that misrepresent how smaller recreational boats 35 – 65 feet in length operate and the risk they pose to North Atlantic right whales. The fundamental mistake: the assumption that smaller recreational boats are the same as large commercial cargo ships. This includes NOAA assuming that vessels 35 – 65 feet in length have a 10 meter draft (most have a draft of less than 2 meters), assuming smaller recreational boats have the same transit patterns as large commercial ships (they do not), and using whale density estimates that overestimate risk (NOAA’s own technical memo states, “the high densities predicted along the mid-Atlantic may not be realistic.”)

Further, while vessel strikes are tragic, they are extremely unlikely. Since 2008, there have been five small vessel strikes on right whales. In that same time period, there have been 5.1 million recreational fishing trips in smaller vessels meaning if all five strikes were from smaller recreational boats, the odds of a fishing trip resulting in a lethal strike is less than one-in-a-million.

NOAA also wildly underestimated the economic cost of this proposed rule at $46 million per year. According to an analysis by Southwick Associates, NOAA’s proposed rule changes threaten to eliminate up to 70,000 recreational fishing trips along the Atlantic seaboard, threatening 340,000 American jobs and nearly $84 billion in economic activity from recreational fishing and boating in Atlantic coastal states alone.

Had NOAA consulted with the recreational fishing and boating community when developing its proposed rule changes, many of these errors could have been avoided and a more balanced approach could have been produced. We are now looking to Congress to help us achieve a balanced approach to saving the North Atlantic right whale and safeguarding public access.

I urge your office to support S. 1833 and H.R. 4323 and language in the appropriations process, to press pause on this rulemaking until technological monitoring solutions recently authorized by Congress can help better track whales and avoid strikes. It’s all hands on deck to find a solution that will truly help North Atlantic right whales. Our friends at the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and leaders of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus will host a briefing in the Capitol Visitors Center on July 20, to raise awareness of more practical and realistic opportunities.

Jeff Angers is the president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy. CSP is the nation’s leading advocate for saltwater recreational anglers. CSP aims to maximize opportunity for saltwater anglers by organizing, focusing and engaging recreational fishing stakeholders to shape federal marine fisheries management policies.