Speed restrictions proposed for the benefit of the North Atlantic right whale would ruin the Steamship Authority schedules, the ferry line’s board was told Tuesday.
“Limiting vessels speeds from Nov. 1 to May 30 in an effort to try to protect the right whale from vessel strikes,” SSA general manager Robert Davis told the board, was at the heart of the proposed restrictions. Davis said vessels 35 feet or larger would be restricted to 10 knots. The proposed restriction zones include both Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound, Davis noted. Generally, the SSA’s high-speed ferry travels at 30 knots, and the traditional ferries travel at 12 to 13 knots, according to SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll.
Davis said staff recommend the SSA write to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to express objection to the proposal.
“Besides having an impact on our high-speed service, we’re most concerned about the impacts that it will have on our traditional ferry service. At 10 knots, we would not be able to make [our] schedule to Nantucket, which means it would impact the number of trips we can run. Right now we’re able to operate three round-trips a day with those vessels, in an 18-hour operating day.”
Davis said at 10 knots the same number of trips would require more hours to accomplish.
“Which would mean we’d either have to bring an additional crew in order to do that, thus increasing our costs by one-third, or we’d have to reduce the number of trips that we’re able to run to and from Nantucket.”
Davis said staff is still looking at the Vineyard route to figure out how it would be affected.
Davis said if the SSA was forced to reduce daily trips to Nantucket to just two, it would have a “devastating impact on Nantucket’s economy.”
Davis said the letter to NOAA could seek special exemptions for Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds. He noted Long Island Sound and Buzzards Bay are excluded from the restrictions.
Over the course of the past 500,000 trips to both Islands, “none of our crews have documented seeing any right whales.”
“It’s going to be a fundamental change if we have to do that from an operational standpoint,” general counsel Terence Kenneally said. “And our operating experience doesn’t support the need for the change.” Kenneally went on to say, “It seems to be an overreach and somewhat arbitrary in the way it’s being proposed.”
Davis said the SSA concerns weren’t meant to “minimize the plight of the right whales,” but it appears NOAA is “creating a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.”
SSA board member Jim Malkin, the Vineyard’s representative, said it seemed reasonable that if Buzzards Bay and Long Island Sound are excluded, Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound could be excluded too. Malkin said he supported SSA staff making the ferry line’s opinions known to NOAA.
Falmouth board member Peter Jeffrey said he agreed with Davis, Kenneally, and Malkin. He added that “Vineyard Sound is quite the overreach.”
Jeffrey said it was his understanding right whale sightings occur south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket — ”not anywhere in regard to where the ferries currently run.”
HyLine Cruises president Murray Scudder, whose company is licensed under the SSA, told the board, “This would set back the Islands, particularly Nantucket, 50-plus years. Slowing down high-speed vessels is not an option.” In effect, Murray said, the proposal “eliminates” high-speed ferry service. “It would remove us from the equation,” he said.
The board didn’t take a vote, but agreed to review a draft letter on the subject.
In other business, the board voted 4-0 to accept a set of general manager’s goals for the coming year. Among those goals, Davis said, is “to improve community relations through regular opportunities for public engagement and effective communications.” Another goal, as recommended by the Port Council, is “to oversee the development of the administrative staff, including the hiring of a chief operating officer (COO) and grants administrator.”
Malkin said he expected to see a general manager’s succession plan on the list. Malkin noted he and Nantucket board member Robert Ranney pressed for such a goal about a year ago.
Davis said he thought that would have fallen under the aforementioned development of staff.
Asked if he wanted it included as a standalone item, Malkin said so long as the board agrees.
“I’m happy to add that in,” Ranney said.
Succession planning was added to the list of goals.