On Monday, the leading organizations representing recreational fishing and boating in the United States, including the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF), urged the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to pause its proposed North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction Rule, citing numerous significant flaws with the proposal. The proposed rule would broaden the current 10-knot (11.5 mph) speed restriction to include vessels 35 feet and larger (down from 65 feet); expand the go-slow zones from discrete calving areas to essentially the whole Atlantic Coast out as far as 90 miles: and extend these zone restrictions as long as seven months a year.
As America’s original conservationists, recreational anglers and boaters proactively support science-based efforts to conserve our marine ecosystems. “The angling and boating communities have long been partners with federal and state agencies in finding solutions to the challenges facing our fish and wildlife resources,” said Jeff Crane, President and CEO of CSF. “Given that history, it is very disappointing that our community wasn’t provided an opportunity to work with NMFS in finding more practical and efficient alternatives that provide necessary right whale conservation measures while also safeguarding access to marine fisheries resources and coastal economies.”
Despite working on the proposed rule for more than a year, NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources did not conduct any customary, formal engagement with stakeholders throughout their process. The recreational angling and boating community fully support efforts to conserve right whales. However, the coalition comment letter urges the agency to suspend the rule making process until several issues with the proposed rule are addressed and the community is given the opportunity to offer alternatives that are more effective at right whale conservation and less impactful to anglers and boaters than the current, overly precautionary approach affords.
Among the recreational fishing and boating community’s many concerns with the proposed rule, most notable are:
- An analysis of NMFS data found approximately 5.1 million recreational fishing trips were taken in this region by vessels 35 – 65 feet in length since 2008. Assuming all five right whale strikes during that time were from recreational vessels, and that all these vessels were on fishing trips, the chance of a 35 – 65-feet recreational vessel striking a right whale during an offshore fishing trip is at most 0.000098%, or less than one-in-a-million. Attempting to predict risk on a one-in-a-million chance of a vessel strike is simply not an effective management strategy and highlights the futility of expanding the Seasonal Speed Zones (SSZs) to address such a small possibility of vessel strike interactions.
- NMFS is using unrepresentative whale density values in their risk modelling, thereby creating a significant bias that may overestimate risk to whales from small vessel strikes. NMFS’ own technical memo states that, “the high densities predicted along the mid-Atlantic may not be realistic.”
- The model assumes 10-meter draft depth criteria when calculating vessel strike risk. However, recreational vessels in this size class rarely have a static draft that exceeds 2 meters. This also creates bias that may overestimate risk to whales from small vessel strikes.
- NMFS underestimates the number of recreational vessels that will be impacted by the proposed rule at 9,200 vessels. However, based on 2021 vessel registration data analyzed by Southwick Associates, there were more than 63,000 registered recreational saltwater vessels measuring 35 – 65 feet in states across the proposed SSZs.
- NMFS estimates the positive economic output from whale watching in the northeast at $95.1 million. In contrast, NMFS estimates $46.2 million in negative impacts for all vessel size classes and regions combined. It is difficult to understand how the economic benefits of whale watching operations in the northeast exceeds the proposed rule’s economic harm to all recreational vessels.
- Enforcement of the proposed rule using Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) would be impractical and could lead to significant human safety risk. AIS is mandatory for certain vessels over 65 feet to improve the navigational safety of the vessel and other vessels operating in the area. AIS is not required on recreational vessels 35 – 65 feet although many boat owners voluntarily carry and operate AIS for the added safety-at-sea benefits. It is a very real concern that operators of boats less than 65 feet may decide to turn off their AIS systems in fear of triggering a speed restriction enforcement action. This would have the unfortunate consequence of reducing navigational safety, boater safety and hampering efforts during search-and-rescue operations.
- Vessel speed is a significant safety feature on a recreational boat. Most recreational boats lack high displacement hull design that often provides ocean-going and commercial vessel stability and the ability to operate safely in significant sea states. The 10-knot speed limit would force recreational boaters to operate in conditions that would compromise safety of the passengers and vessel.
CSF and the rest of the fishing and boating community welcomes the opportunity to work with NMFS in developing ways to provide real-time positioning on right whale locations to vessel operators. Doing so would apply empirically-based and targeted precaution instead of deterring boating activity due to a 10-knot maximum speed limit over vast areas that does not accurately reflect actual risk of a right whale strike and that cannot be adequately enforced. Developing ways to distribute this information to vessel operators will only occur through direct engagement with the industry, fishing, and boating organizations.
The coalition of groups calling for NMFS to pause the Proposed North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction Rule includes American Sportfishing Association, Boat Owners Association of the United States, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, Center for Sportfishing Policy, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, International Game Fish Association, Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, National Marine Manufacturers Association, Recreational Fishing Alliance and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.