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Skipper’s Corner – NOAA Fisheries Propose Boat Speed Limits to Protect Endangered Right Whales

It came to my attention that NOAA Fisheries is proposing a 10 knot speed limit on all pleasure boats, between 35 ft and 65 ft., in order to decrease mortality rates of right whales. This would extend out 100 miles from shore. By the time I found out, the period for public comment had closed. Now it is in the hands of NOAA to decide if these new rules will be enacted.
Unfortunately, there are only 350 right whales left on this planet. Only 100 are females. They were hunted to near extinction. They generally are coastal, thereby whalers could avoid long and costly voyages. Once killed, they float rather than sink, making it easy to process them. Early settlers in our region were taught by Native Americans to hunt them in boats launched from shore. They were the “Right” whale to hunt. By the 1830s they were decimated. Whalers then had to go further and further in their quest for whales.

In our area, the mid Atlantic states up to northernmost Maine, the proposed speed restriction would be in force from Nov 1st through May 30th, a total of seven full months. There will also be areas no boat can enter based on the quantity of whales there. The bulk of pleasure boating is not overly active during this part of the year, but it doesn’t mean it’s empty out there either. Many boats in the size category pursue striped bass and ghost tuna through December. During winter and spring, cod, ling, blackfish, mackerel, etc. are in play. Come late March, boaters begin to stir. How will these rules effect boaters and the industry itself? To what degree? I doubt this can be calculated due to the complexity of the issue until one or two years after enforcement.
Obviously, there is a quandary. Whales are a magnificent part of our ocean environment. In recent years we have been privileged to see many of their specie rebound, migrate to, and stay right off our coast. No sane person wants them slaughtered in any manner. Mortality been heavy, particularity between the years of 2017/18/19, when a total of 67 died. During 2020/21 deaths were reduced to 29 deaths. As of this date in 2022, there have been only six deaths. It is interesting to note that the largest quantity of deaths happened during heavy coastal sea traffic by container ships. When sea traffic reduced substantially during Covid, fewer right whales succumbed. Is there a correlation? It should be looked at.
Right whales also fall victim to commercial lobster trap lines and fishing entrapments from active and abandoned old nets. Lobster trap lines are a prime culprit. NOAA FISHERIES is currently working technologies for lineless traps to end line entanglements. They are also working with fin fishing netters to avoid right whale mortality. These are positive steps. There are groups of environmentalists demanding immediate action. This may be due to their claim of the sluggishness of NOAA to act. As usual, emotions can run hot, especially when it comes to whales. This is proven by an unfortunate decision by Whole Foods, who today announced they are dropping the purchase of all lobsters due this situation. This is draconian. Other companies may follow.
This will put hard working lobstermen out of work. They have families that will suffer. They are not the ones who overfished the right whale over 170 years ago. They are just trying to make a living. Woke Whole Foods just lost a customer!
As an environmentalist, I support measured efforts to save the right and all whales. There are no easy answers here. I wish there were. But environmentalists should understand that NOAA works methodically to achieve the best solution. Hopefully soon, every captain, whether on a container, cruise, military, or pleasure boat will have a depth finder that scans a mile or more around each vessel, locates whales, and sounds an alarm so the captain can take collision avoidance measures. If we have the technical knowledge to make smart bombs, why can’t we achieve the technology to “SAVE THE WHALES!” but also save the jobs of fishermen and those in the marine trades.

See you on the waves
Captain Eddy (Retired)