Vessel length questioned for new right whale speed reduction rule

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NOAA Fisheries went for a 35-to-65-foot boat length specification for its small vessel speed reduction rule, meant to address the number of collisions severely injuring or killing adult North Atlantic right whales and their calves. Now, talk has sprung up among experts as to why the agency went with 35 feet, and why NOAA Fisheries felt the need to include collisions with Southern right whales as part of the rationale.

A scientist speaking on background to Florida Politics believed the specification was a sticking point with the marine industry.

“We considered (boat length) for quite a while,” said Caroline Good of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, explaining the rule. “First and foremost, the rationale is based on existing known strike events, and that includes strike events in U.S. waters involving right whales, but we also have other strike events from other parts of the world of similar species. 

“For example, there are strike events off South Africa and Australia that involve Southern right whale mortalities, which is a similar species to our North Atlantic right whale, that involve vessels that were 30 and 34 feet in length. We also have some strikes that involve serious injuries that might have involved right whales in U.S. waters down to 30 feet, but we’re not entirely sure because we couldn’t verify the species of the whale involved.”

Background on the proposed rule in the Federal Register cites four events in the last two years as part of the basis for the rule change.

“Since 2020 alone, four right whale vessel strikes in U.S. waters resulted in mortalities and serious injuries: (1) a calf was seriously injured off Florida/Georgia in January 2020; (2) a calf was killed off New Jersey in June 2020; (3) a calf was killed off Florida in February 2021; and (4) its mother was seriously injured by the same vessel,” according to the Register.

“For three of the four events, the vessels involved in the collisions were known to be between 35 (10.7 m) and 65 ft (19.8 m) in length and traveling in excess of 20 knots (10.3 m/s) at the time.”

Items No. 3 and 4 are related to the vessel strike near St. Augustine Inlet, which involved a 54-foot vessel, and the length is unknown of the vessel that mortally wounded the Georgia calf mentioned in item No. 1. That leaves the New Jersey strike, for which the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement hasn’t publicly released the report.

“We’ve got calves all along our Southeast coast that are extremely vulnerable to vessel strikes,” Good said. “They tend to spend all of their time right near the surface of the water, in that strike zone, close to shore with their mothers. Not just in the Southeast when they’re born, but even as they move up the coast to begin feeding in early spring off New England. They’re always in that strike zone.”

The proposed Southeast speed reduction zone is set for Nov. 15-April 15, covering the time in which pregnant right whales travel to the areas off Southeast Georgia and Northeast Florida to calve before making the long trip back to waters off New England and Canada.

NOAA Fisheries “anticipates the proposed revisions would address over 90% percent of the risk reduction that can be achieved by reducing vessel speeds to 10 knots (5.1 m/s), relative to the status quo,” according to the Federal Register.

Good spoke in the first of three online presentations on the proposed rule, taking clarifying questions but no official comments. NOAA Fisheries has two more planned — one Aug. 16 and another Aug. 14, both starting at 6 p.m. and lasting up to 90 minutes.

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