Recreational Fishing and Boating Groups Want a Pause in Proposed Federal Regulations to Limit Boat Speed

Proposed rule would reduce boat speeds to slightly above idle for boats 35 feet and larger from Massachusetts to Florida.

Proposed speed restrictions
A 10-knot regulation along the entire East Coast could devastate the marine industry. Courtesy NOAA

In early October numerous fishing and boating groups (including IGFA and CCA) representing countless outdoors people urged the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to pause its proposed North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction Rule because it had many flaws.

NMFS is proposing amendments to the rule that would broaden the current 10-knot speed limit for 65-foot boats and larger, to boats 35-feet and larger. The proposed rule would expand the go-slow zones from discrete calving areas to essentially the entire Atlantic Coast out to 90 miles, with zone restrictions lasting up to seven months per year.

This staggeringly broad proposal would devastate America’s marine industry, hugely impact fishermen, guides and the entire coastal marina, tackle, resort and other outdoor businesses, say representatives of the impacted groups of the proposed federal rule.

The proposed rule has been in development for more than a year. But NOAA did not have formal engagement with anglers, boaters and others. A pause would allow time for additional analysis of significant flaws within the rule and potential new alternatives to be developed with the recreational fishing and boating industry.

“Protecting right whales is urgent, and we are ready to do our part, “said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy. “NMFS failed due diligence excluded from the conversation America’s recreational anglers and boaters – the most affected stakeholders. The agency needs to get it right. Based on actual interactions between recreational boats and right whales, the proposed restrictions on vessels 35 – 65 feet are unjustifiable, ineffective and unnecessarily costly to America’s economy.”

“While we all support the intention of this rule to protect right whales, by not consulting with the recreational fishing and boating community at any point during its development, NMFS has put forward a deeply flawed rule that will have severe economic impacts and provide little benefit to right whales,” said Glenn Hughes, president of the American Sportfishing Association.

Predictably, the proposal is not setting well with American boaters, anglers and their representative recreational organizations.

“The proposed rule, as written, would be the most consequential maritime regulation that we have ever seen imposed on the recreational boating and fishing sector,” says John DePersenaire, Director of Government Affairs for New Viking Yachts, located in New Jersey. “It will affect not only boat owners but marinas, tackle shops, charter boat operators – basically all maritime-related businesses on the Atlantic Coast.”

One of the most eye-opening realities of the federal proposed whale rule is that 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. There were five white strikes by boats within that time. Assuming all five right whale strikes were from recreational vessels, and that all these vessels were on fishing trips, the chance of a 35- to 65-foot 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 not an effective management strategy, say the fishing groups, and this highlights the futility of expanding the whale speed zones to address such a small possibility of fishing vessel strikes.

“NOAA’s proposed rule unfortunately underestimates the very real economic impacts on the recreational boating and fishing industry, the largest contributor to the nation’s $689 billion outdoor recreation economy. The rule will bring the vast majority of boating and fishing trips along the Atlantic Coast to a screeching halt, impacting millions of Americans who go boating each year,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “We urge the agency to pause its rule making process and engage with our industry to determine a better path forward that protects the North Atlantic right whale and the health of the recreational boating and fishing industry.”

Outdoor groups also note that speed is a significant safety feature on recreational boats. Most recreational boats lack high displacement hull design that often provides ocean-going and commercial vessel stability and the ability to operate safely. The 10-knot speed limit would force recreational boaters to operate in conditions that would compromise safety of the passengers and vessels.

“Safeguarding our natural resources is always a priority of boaters, but it shouldn’t come at the risk of human safety. We believe the current proposed rule needs to be paused and redesigned,” said Chris Edmonston, president of the BoatUS Foundation.

“We look forward to working with NMFS on boater education and more effective ways to avoid whale strikes because we strongly believe boats can safely operate and avoid whales.”

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