Emergency petition filed to institute new federal right whale protections
Image via Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

right whales fwc
NOAA Fisheries is moving forward on a proposed rule that would mandate speed restrictions to 10 knots for vessels 35 to 65 feet.

As opposition organizes against new vessel speed regulations meant to slow the path toward extinction for North Atlantic right whales, advocacy group Oceana is filing an emergency rulemaking petition with the U.S. Department of Commerce this week, asking the federal agency to immediately put those regulations into effect pending approval of the final rule.

Otherwise, even if the new rules survive challenges from port and charter vessel interests — among others — they wouldn’t go into effect until sometime later in 2023.

The agency, as part of a larger right whale regulatory package, is moving forward on a proposed rule that would mandate speed restrictions to 10 knots for vessels 35 to 65 feet long in certain speed restriction zones. For the calving grounds off Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia, that zone would run Nov. 15-April 15.

Small vessel collisions and the resulting right whale deaths in calving grounds off Northeast Florida spurred the agency to act.

“Collisions with vessels continue to impede North Atlantic right whale recovery,” said Janet Coit, the Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, when rolling out the rules in July. NOAA is part of the Commerce Department.

“This proposed action is necessary to stabilize the ongoing right whale population decline, in combination with other efforts to address right whale entanglement and vessel strikes in the U.S. and Canada.”

There are around 80 or fewer 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.

The last recreational vessel strike occurred in February 2021, when the About Time, a 54-foot recreational vessel, slammed into a right whale calf at 20 knots, half a mile off St. Augustine Inlet.

Charter boat captains raised alarms that transiting at such a slow speed will make parts of their business untenable.

“It is definitely going to add four hours to charter boats that go offshore,” said Judy Helmey of Miss Judy Charters in Savannah, Georgia, at the September meetings of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

“It is going to be quite an impact on that, and thinking about it, I’m not sure how bad it’s going to be, other than I know there’s not a lot of people — there’s not a way for us to add four hours to our trip. So, we really need to address that.”

U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott sent a letter to federal officials asking them to back off the plan. The Senators took up the cause of harbor pilots, as in the proposed rules they would be subject to tighter regulations regarding deviation from the rules in the name of safety.

The Florida Ports Council came out against the plans as well.

“FL seaports have been tireless advocates and stewards protecting the environment and marine life, but the proposed amendments present significant life and safety risks for all commercial, recreational, and military mariners who rely upon FL seaports,” the Council tweeted.

However, with longer calving intervals, fewer calves per year and a population trending toward extinction, every North Atlantic right whale life is critical in saving the species.

“Right whale mothers are currently heading south to the warm coastal waters of South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida to calve with grossly inadequate protection,” said Gib Brogan, Oceana campaign director.

“These whales are faced with a number of life-threatening perils along their journey — boat collisions and entanglement in fishing gear remain the two top causes of death for the species. While broader and permanent safeguards are desperately needed, the government must take immediate action now to protect these mothers and their newly born calves today.”

Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Jacksonville and previously covered state politics, environmental issues and courts for the News-Leader in Fernandina Beach. You can reach Wes at [email protected] and @WesWolfeFP. Facebook: facebook.com/wes.wolfe


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