NOAA proposes expansion to vessel speed restriction

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NOAA proposed an expansion on vessel speed restrictions to protect North Atlantic right whales. — Courtesy NOAA Fisheries

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced proposed changes to vessel speed regulations to protect the North Atlantic right whale, an endangered species with “fewer than 350 individuals and fewer than 100 reproductively active females remaining.”

Currently, there is a seasonal speed restriction of 10 knots for vessels 65 feet or longer in designated areas of the ocean called “seasonal management areas.” This restriction was passed in July 2021. The proposed change would lower the threshold for this speed restriction to vessels 35 feet or longer. Included in the proposed rule change are the creation of a “dynamic speed zone” program that would establish “temporary 10-knot transit zones when right whales are detected outside designated seasonal speed zones” and “updates to the rule’s safety provisions” to allow vessels to “exceed the 10-knot restriction in limited circumstances.”

A map on the Federal Register website shows that the waters surrounding Martha’s Vineyard would fall under a proposed seasonal speed zone from Nov. 1 to May 30. 

In the past 2½ years, NOAA documented four lethal right whale vessel strikes in U.S. waters. According to the Federal Register, there have been eight vessels smaller than 65 feet that have collided with right whales since 2005. Six of these collisions resulted in serious injury or death in the right whales. These vessel strikes, alongside entanglements, impede the right whales’ ability to increase their population. 

“Despite the many challenges we face, including climate change, we must find solutions to mitigate the threats to marine mammals while supporting the livelihoods and economies of our fishing communities who put healthy food on our tables,” Janet Coit, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said in the announcement. 

A public comment period is being held until Tuesday, Sept. 30. Comments can be submitted at bit.ly/3vxLN2R. Comments submitted outside of this method will not be considered. For an in-depth explanation of the amendments and its background, visit the Federal Register at bit.ly/3OTEQ2W. Webinars about the amendments will take place on August 10 from 2 pm to 3:30 pm, and August 16 and 24 from 6 pm to 7:30 pm. Registration for these webinars can be done at bit.ly/3OYmQVq.

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