New rules drawn up to protect North Atlantic right whales in their southern calving grounds picked up opposition from charter boat captains, port operations and now the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
A 10-knot vessel speed rule was in effect for areas where right whales transit, but it was for vessels 65 feet or longer. The new rule drops the length to 35 feet, with the speed zone in effect Nov. 15-April 15 each calving season.
“The issues here are strikes from boats killing the right whales, and fishing entanglements,” FWC Executive Director Eric Sutton said during the Commission’s meetings in Panama City. “There’s no doubt that the right whales are critically endangered, and there’s no doubt that boat strikes are one of the leading causes.”
There are so few right whales, and they reproduce so rarely, that each human-caused death is another step toward extinction. There are fewer than 70 calving female North Atlantic right whales believed to be alive. In all, scientists believe there are fewer than 340 total North Atlantic right whales remaining.
“However, you’ll find in that letter (to NOAA Fisheries) that we’re pointing out some of the regulations that are being proposed, in our opinion,” Sutton said, “are expanding on regulations that are really not followed so much, or enforced so much.
“So, it’s kind of like doubling down on something we think would affect our law enforcement, we think it would affect our recreational fisheries. I believe we said we agree on the situation, but we think there’s a smarter way to regulate this.”
The advocacy group Oceana released a report in July 2021, noting in their research that speed restriction zones only work when people observe them. That didn’t happen more often than not, with zones off Southern states having the worst records for noncompliance, at more than 70% for Georgia and Florida calving grounds and more than 90% noncompliance between Wilmington, North Carolina, and Brunswick, Georgia.
Regarding other slow-going, endangered marine mammals, Sutton said the agency’s ready for another season of manatees in winter.
“We are poised and ready to manage our manatee situation in the Indian River Lagoon much as we have, but with improvements based on what we’ve learned,” Sutton said.
“Part of this review includes a supplemental feeding trial that we did at the temporary field response station at (Florida Power & Light’s) Cape Canaveral Energy Center. The good news is, water quality improvements and habitat restorations are ongoing, so hopefully this will be a bridge to help us. I just want to make sure and recognize that the team has done an outstanding job.”
He also thanked Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature for around $28 million to assist, including ongoing projects, and another $20 million for rehabilitation.
Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto thanked David Duda and the Duda farm operation for their assistance in feeding the state’s manatees during the last winter, selling lettuce to the state at a cheaper price than usual.
“It’s saving us a lot of money,” Barreto said. “I want to recognize our foundation, the Fish and Wildlife Foundation, for being the center of all the efforts to raise the money to make sure the lettuce gets there, and on time and at the right place.
“Also, Eric Silagy, President and CEO of FP&L, for all their efforts. FP&L’s become a tremendous partner in this effort. Without them and their staging area, their cooling canals, we wouldn’t be able to pull this off.”