Proposed speed restrictions could slow ferry operations

A rule to slow down vessels to protect right whales has been received with mixed reactions.

A map showing both the current and proposed speed zones. Martha's Vineyard falls into the greenish-yellow area. —Courtesy of NOAA

A proposed federal rule aimed at expanding the enforcement of marine vessel speeds to protect North Atlantic right whales, and that officials fear would impact ferry service for Martha’s Vineyard, has been moved to a final stage in the executive branch’s review process. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is looking to push forward an amended version of its “North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction Rule,” that would expand areas where vessels need to slow down for right whales. 

The rule change would include new locations around the Vineyard. 

The amendments were submitted by NOAA on March 5 to the federal Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, an agency that reviews executive branch regulations. 

The change is currently listed as being in the “final rule” stage, which means NOAA will be analyzing public comments to determine whether to approve the change, issue a new or modified proposal, or withdraw the idea. 

NOAA initially planned to take final action on the proposed rule in time for the 2023 calving season, but there’s no indication when a final decision could be made. “At this time, I do not have any additional information about the timeline,” NOAA spokesperson Andrea Gomez told The Times. 

Over 90,000 public comments have been submitted to NOAA regarding the amendments, although only over 21,000 are available for viewing online, consisting of both calls to save right whales and objection to the proposed changes. 

Several letters, including from the Steamship Authority (SSA), pushed against the measure by pointing out what they see as an impact to the Cape and Islands. The SSA’s letter — submitted in 2022 — says the expanded rule would result in a “significant reduction” in ferry services for Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. 

“The proposed speed reductions in Vineyard Sound will require the authority to eliminate one-seventh, or some fourteen percent (14%), of its traditional ferry round-trips to Martha’s Vineyard,” the SSA letter reads. “Furthermore, the loss of significant revenue on the authority’s Nantucket route will certainly impact its gross revenue overall, leading to likely fare increases on both routes. Again, both islands’ tourist and hospitality economies will suffer with a downturn in the number of passengers carried to the islands.” 

Further, the SSA letter reads, the speed reduction would prevent it from fulfilling its full schedule. “These concerns are particularly heightened during the winter months, because the authority is the only lawful transporter of essentials for the islands’ residents, such as home heating fuel, gasoline, medicines[,] and food,” the letter reads. 

The SSA’s letter also points out that in the more than 60 years the ferry service has been in operation, it has “failed to encounter, observe[,] or been notified of any North Atlantic right whales in Nantucket or Vineyard Sounds.” 

Several letters expressed concern that the proposed rule would also reduce the Island communities’ access to the mainland.

While NOAA had already been encouraging vessels of all sizes to slow down when right whales are nearby, the amendments would promulgate these recommendations into law. 

Currently, the regulations require vessels 65 feet or longer to travel at at most 10 knots, around 11 mph, in areas designated as “seasonal management areas” during certain times of the year. With the amendments, introduced in 2022, the rule would be expanded to include vessels 35 feet or longer, while also increasing the size of the slow zones across the U.S. East Coast. 

The amended version would also create a “dynamic speed zone” framework to implement mandatory speed restrictions for when whales are detected in locations outside of “active [seasonal management areas],” similar to when a pod of right whales swam through a shipping lane off Nantucket and Cape Cod last month. The amended rule would have exceptions for emergency situations that threaten people, or caused by strong gale-force winds.

The proposed amount of time these expanded management areas would be in effect differs per region, but a segment of the Atlantic Ocean that includes Martha’s Vineyard — from near Currituck Sound in North Carolina to Cape Cod Bay — would have the vessel slow down, in effect, between Nov. 1 and May 30. 

While all of the SSA’s vessels exceed the 65-foot threshold, their routes currently are not part of the management areas. SSA board members hoped Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound would be excluded from the proposed vessel slow zones. While there are some areas excluded, like Buzzards Bay and Long Island Sound, the seas around Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are included in the proposed reduced speed areas. 

The SSA’s high-speed ferry travels at 30 knots, while the traditional ferries travel at 12 to 13 knots.

This also brings into question how Seastreak’s commuter service between New Bedford and Vineyard Haven, which launched last November, will be impacted if the expanded rule is passed. Seastreak president James Barker was not immediately available for comment. 

The expansion would impact maritime industries besides transportation services, such as commercial fishing and offshore wind development. Vineyard Power, a partner of the offshore wind project Vineyard Wind, wrote in a 2022 letter advocating NOAA to find a path that protects both right whales and the development of the U.S. offshore wind industry.

“Offshore wind development presents a once-in-a-generation economic opportunity for our Island community,” reads the letter, submitted by Vineyard Power Cooperative president Richard Andre. “This economic opportunity includes long-term careers and infrastructure investments on our island … The blanket vessel speed restrictions included in NOAA’s proposed amendment … could significantly hamper our community’s ability to contribute to a blue economy and support operations and maintenance (O&M) infrastructure for offshore wind farm projects.”

Others worry about the impact to recreational boaters.

“This regulation would have an effect on the Island and some of the boaters and fishing businesses,” Massachusetts Marine Trades Association executive director Randall Lyons, whose organization also represents some Vineyard boat businesses, told The Times. 

NOAA law enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard employ several methods to enforce the current rules, such as using a portable radar to detect speeding vessels, patrolling the seasonal management areas, and detecting speeding through an automatic identification system, which transmits a vessel’s location to other vessels. NOAA is looking at improving vessel speed-tracking capabilities, and is investigating the possibility of using land- and air-based monitoring options in the amendments.

The original rule was implemented in 2008 to reduce the number of vessel strikes killing the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, a species with around 360 individuals left and fewer than 70 breeding females remaining. 

NOAA states the “changes to the speed regulations are proposed to reduce vessel strike risk based on a coastwide collision mortality risk assessment and updated information on right whale distribution, vessel traffic patterns, and vessel strike mortality and serious injury events.” According to NOAA, vessel strikes are one of the leading causes of death for right whales. 

This year, three right whale calves died: one found on Martha’s Vineyard with evidence of fishing gear entanglement, and two more found dead near Georgia, with what NOAA’s necropsy team stated seemed like wounds from vessel strikes. 

New England Aquarium communications director Pam Bechtold Snyder, whose organization conducts research on right whales, said a scientist was not available to speak with The Times by the print deadline. However, New England Aquarium released a study earlier this year stating that a 10-knot speed restriction in a wider area than what currently exists was needed to protect whales from vessel strikes.


  1. I understand the commercial issues.
    But sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta
    do and factor it in.

  2. Less boats crossing and more whales? Easy one. The reason is for tourists that they run so many, not for being a lifeline. Maybe it will be the whales who save Martha’s Vineyard from itself.

  3. Well it took an hr an 40 minutes yesterday to come over so I would say they are on target already.

  4. What was the last time our ferry even deviated so as to not hit a whale. I suspect Not once In in hundred years of service.

    • Mary– That’s completely untrue. Shame on you for
      posting an obvious lie. Just because you may not like
      the windmills, is no reason to lie about it.
      Please at least do a few seconds of thinking before
      you post misinformation.
      Or perhaps in our current political climate
      a significant number of people think it’s
      just fine to lie, as long as it promotes their agenda.
      Just read the article in this paper about all the
      easily debunked lies associated with whales and
      the windmills

      • Please read Vineyard Wind’s ITA for construction. When transiting, Vineyard Wind crew vessels must slow down to 10 knots ONLY if a whale is detected.

    • The wind farm crew transport vessels are in in fact limited to ten knots.
      Have you seen a wind farm crew transport vessel underway, ever talked to a wind farm crew transport vessel crew member?
      Some boat operators go above and beyond. Our high speed ferries do not.

        • Don, Vineyard Wind is a special interest.
          They are not fighting it.
          Their internal “law” is 10 knots.
          They can not “afford” a whale strike.

      • “The wind farm crew transport vessels are in in fact limited to ten knots.”

        Please document this.


        • Katherine– a few weeks ago, Jason Gale put up a
          screenshot of a V.W cargo ship doing 20 kt.
          I went down to the V.W office (151 beach rd V.H)
          and showed that to them. They were concerned about
          is, as they said they are indeed subject to all speed limits.
          It is strongly implied in this very article. As it turned out,
          in that particular case, the vessel in question was not in
          a restricted area.
          The rules only currently apply to vessels over 65 ft.
          I do not know the length of the crew transport vehicles.
          If they are under 65 ft they are are not subject to current
          limits, just like any other boat of a similar size.
          They are not exempt from any regulations but to the
          nature of their work.

        • False. By company policy VW vessels are limited to 10 knots. They have been in all of 2024. They are well managed, they know the cost of a whale strike.
          And they are good stewards of the earth (oil consumption reducttio0n ..
          They have 38 knot boats, same as Seastreak.
          The 10 knot limit is increasing wind farm costs.
          If Seastreak had to go 10 knots they could not afford to run without doubling their fares.
          The time to hate has gone by. You are likely to expire before VW.

        • Katherine, I am very, very, well acquainted with a native born Islander Vineyard Wind boat driver. Lots of boat jobs, one Islander.
          Are you by any chance an arriviste?

  5. It would be nice if the whales cooperated. It would be very nice to see one or two whales while the ferry is meandering across to the island.

  6. GOOD!!!! I hope they DO enforce it!!!!!
    The ssa is only concerned about getting their $$$$$$
    Going slower doesn’t impact our needs – everyone will live…. they wont die…. BUT THE WHALES WILL…..
    YES!!! SLOW IT DOWN!!!!

  7. So how does hitting a whale at a lower speed protect the whale? How can you evade something you can’t even see? How quickly can these large vessels take evasive maneuvers to prevent a strike? And these established shipping lanes will there be demarcations for whale crossings much like deer? We haven’t been able to educate the deer to cross our highways at cross walks how do we propose we educate the whales?
    I just read the NOAA PSA on whale strikes and it’s the ultimate feel good, do nothing virtue signaling government document that I have ever read. Bottom line they just want more tax money to throw at this “problem”. Judge for yourself and try not to laugh or cry depending upon where you sit on this issue.,keep%20track%20of%20such%20incidents.

    • I agree with you about the “feel good” part of this. But, you know,
      I live off of Franklin st in V.H . The speed limit was 35, and no children
      were killed because of getting hit by a car, but there were some accidents.
      So they reduced the speed limit to 25. Well, what do ya
      know ? No children have been killed since, but there are still some accidents.
      I wonder how it would all work out if they raised the speed limit to 60 ?
      But of course, anytime you get near and school,during school
      hours the speed limit goes down to 20.
      It might not make a difference– but, it might.
      And if it prevents one kid from getting hit, it’s worth it.
      Agreed ?

      • Yes sir, I agree that reducing the speed of motor vehicles on land will reduce accidents. Why? First is that going slower enables the driver of a vehicle AND the other person the ability the avoid the collision. It benefits both parties. I am not sure that whales can reason the same as humans. Also motor vehicles can quickly take defensive maneuvers, not so much with these huge vessels. And secondly, you have to see something in order to avoid it. No matter how fast or slow you are moving you can’t see underwater. And lastly when there is a tragic event like a child being struck by a car and education takes place both for children by their schools and parents and by the motoring public as to the cause of the accident. Was the child chasing a ball into the street? As a driver I know that a child isn’t far behind. A child has to be taught not to run blindly after it. Lastly, there will be tragedies even if you post the speed at 10mph since humans are increasing selfish thinking that speed limit isn’t for them and they just drive as fast as they can and why not have a few beers while they do it. But count me in for making the water safer and cleaner for all as long as we can demonstrate what we are doing is actually working and not just to virtue signal.

    • Whales are very good at avoiding boats that do not go to much faster than they do.
      Seastreak goes 38 knots. Whales do not.
      Different people interpret NOAA PSAs differently.
      Same goes for political rallies.
      I have judged, slow down for whales.
      Would you?
      If you had hit a whale at 38 knots would you live? Would the whale? Do you care?

      Who is they? Who gets the tax money from slowed boats?

      • Actually Hess, maybe take a look at what some experts say about whales being very good at avoiding ships. Sadly for the whales you are just wrong.
        There are countless other studies that contradict your deceptive post
        Yes, Hess people interpret things differently, thanks for the insight
        Yes, Hess if I saw a whale I would slow down like everyone else. But the problem is we can’t see them. People don’t like hitting things with their property Hess as it causes damage.
        Well, if I was swimming at 38 knots or 43.73 mph and hit a whale head first no I don’t think I would survive. But that’s a silly question so no why would I care?
        Hess, they are the special interest groups that get our tax money to study and make obtuse recommendations to the ruling class that costs us even more money with increased regulations. And those special interest groups are often affiliated with the party in charge. It’s a way to pay your friends and family back for their support. Some places even call it corruption.
        Thanks for sharing and try to keep up. Hope I answered all your questions.

        • We can see the whales.
          Garmin Sonar ~$3,000.
          The wind service boats have them.
          They are currently self limiting to ten knots.
          If you hit a big whale 38 knots in a smallish boat you and the whale are likely to die.
          I hope that you would care if you hit a whale, or anything else, at 38 knots.

          “Hess, they are the special interest groups that get our tax money to study and make obtuse recommendations to the ruling class that costs us even more money with increased regulations.” There will always be a ruling class. No one in charge is a messy bit of business. Trump was in charge. So many rules and regulations by Sharpie signed Executive Orders , with a big grin and a Big Mac, ketchup on the side.

          “And those special interest groups are often affiliated with the party in charge.” Duh. That is how the the world works. When your party is in charge you get more stuff. See the 2017 tax cut. I am going to guess that you cam out ahead. Have your net worth and net income outpaced inflation
          Is Biden a member of the ruling class? Trump?

          I have kept up. You answered just one question. You think that our current state of governance is not you fault. You are as pure as the driven snow.

          • Hess, please do us all a favor and take a little time to educate yourself before posting. Sonar has been proven to interfere with whales ability to navigate the ocean. It’s incredibly harmful to whales and in some cases sonar has deafened the whales senses entirely.
            Again countless studies including by our navy bare this out.
            So Hess are you ok with the ruling party doing whatever they want just because “ Duh, that’s how the world works” if so then stop your sniffling about Trump. But I’m not. Our politicians need to put the country first and not their selfish interests. And my net worth will do just fine based on my business acumen and will never be dependent on who is in charge. I dont rely on others for my good fortunes. I make them myself. Please re read my comment as I answered your questions and no you have not kept up as evidenced by your silly comment about sonar. And by no means am I as pure as the driven snow. What an awful thought that would be. I like to have too much fun. Hess, good try but we know you can do better, please try.

    • The Canal bridges Rehab is going to cost around $350 million.
      How much will the Island bridge cost?
      Tax supported or toll?
      Will it significantly in crease the number of day-trippers.

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