Local congressional rep favors speed-zone exemption

Some lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are against the measure introduced to protect right whales.

Bill Keating is in favor of an exemption from a proposed vessel speed restriction in Nantucket Sound. —MV Times

U.S. Representative Bill Keating, representative for the Islands, favors an exemption for some local waters from speed restrictions proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) intended to protect North Atlantic right whales.

Keating says that while he favors protections for the critically endangered whales, their limited presence in Nantucket Sound is not enough to force new regulations that would impact the Island communities, specifically Steamship Authority operations. 

The “North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction Rule” would expand the areas — from North Carolina to Cape Cod Bay — where boaters would need to slow down for right whales, a species with only around 360 individuals remaining. 

In these designated areas, the speed reduction would require vessels to travel no faster than 10 knots, or around 11 mph, during certain times of the year. For the Atlantic, that would be between Nov. 1 and May 30 for waters around the Vineyard. The proposed regulation would also force vessels 35 feet or longer to comply with the speed reduction, rather than just those 65 feet or longer. 

The Steamship Authority, in opposition to the proposed regulation, says the slow zones would drastically hamper its ability to serve Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The Steamship’s traditional ferries sail at 12 to 13 knots, but the fast ferry between Hyannis and Nantucket travels at 30 knots. 

Chris Matthews, a spokesperson for Rep. Keating, said the congressman is a “longtime supporter” of right whale conservation, and has advocated for additional resources toward efforts like disentangling ropes, survey flights, and the development of new technology to better identify where the animals are located. Matthews said Keating has been frustrated by “broad efforts to prevent NOAA from protecting the critically endangered right whales. 

“However, with more than a half-million trips between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket over the past two decades, the Steamship Authority has never sighted a right whale in Nantucket Sound,” Matthews said in a statement. “Because of the lack of sightings, coupled with the adverse impact that speed restrictions would have on ferry service, Congressman Keating has communicated the need for NOAA officials to exempt Nantucket Sound from being included within the overly broad speed restriction boundaries, and he will continue to advocate for this result on behalf of the people of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, who depend on regular and swift access to the mainland.” 

It isn’t just Keating who takes issue with the proposal. Lawmakers from other states have been more aggressive in their opposition to the proposed regulations. 

Most recently, Georgia Rep. Earl (“Buddy”) Carter, a Republican, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee’s Water, Wildlife and Fisheries Subcommittee on June 27 for a bill he introduced earlier that month that would delay the proposed regulation until the end of 2030.

Rather, Carter’s bill proposes forming a grant program to “foster enhanced coexistence” between boaters and marine life. 

In his testimony, Carter argued that the proposed regulation threatens jobs and businesses in his state, expressed safety concerns for boaters in shipping lanes if they’re forced to slow down to around 11 mph, and that a grant could encourage the development of technologies to reduce vessel strikes — a leading cause of death for right whales, according to NOAA.

“We need to protect the right whales, but we have to balance that with public safety and the needs of our coastal shipping economy,” Carter said in his testimony. 

Conservationists and environmentalists have decried Carter’s proposal as an attack on a species threatened by looming extinction.

“By blocking science-based improvements to the vessel speed rule, this bill effectively issues a death warrant to this critically endangered species,” Dan Moss, senior government relations representative for the Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. 

Jessica Redfern, associate vice president of ocean conservation science at New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, testified against Carter’s bill. She said the current regulations, implemented in 2008, were insufficient to protect right whales from vessel strikes. 

“Protecting whales through measures known to be effective, such as speed restrictions, and

funding the development of other approaches to reduce vessel strikes, including technology, are not mutually exclusive,” she said in her testimony. 

The proposed regulation is facing congressional opposition outside of Carter’s bill, as well.

A bill rider in the fiscal year 2025 appropriations bill released on June 25 by the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee prevented funding to be used toward the enforcement of a new vessel speed restriction for the North Atlantic right whale.

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nor any part of the Department of Commerce, to enforce any vessel speed restriction for the North Atlantic Right Whale that was not in place prior to January 20, 2021,” the rider in the appropriation bill reads. 

It is uncertain who introduced the bill rider. The communications director for the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee was not immediately available for comment. 

Legislation to trip over the proposed vessel speed regulation have appeared in Congress before. Bills were introduced in the U.S. Senate and the House in June 2023, both titled “Protecting Whales, Human Safety, and the Economy Act of 2023,” to stifle NOAA’s proposed regulation. 

In the U.S. Senate, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, now an independent, and Arkansas Republican Senator John Boozman introduced a bill to “prohibit the issuance of an interim or final rule that amends, updates, modifies, or replaces the North Atlantic Right Whale vessel strike reduction rule until mitigation protocols are fully developed and deployed.” In the House, Carter introduced a nearly identical bill, separate from his six-year delay proposal.

NOAA’s proposed rule had been submitted to the federal Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in March, an agency that reviews executive branch regulations. It is pending review, and when a decision will be made is uncertain.


  1. Ok — could someone correct me if I am reading this wrong. Or
    interpreting the numbers the wrong way.
    Let me keep it to the Vineyard.
    We are talking about a 3 mile an hour maximum difference for part of the trip.
    On the trip between W.H the Vineyard. They can only “open it up” for about 5 miles
    of that 6 mile trip, if that . Using those old time distance rate formulas that we
    all hated in school, this reduction in speed would add about 11 minutes to the
    ferry ride. — at most. Let me repeat– at most–
    The steamship has 2 options– figure out how to unload and
    load the boats quicker. I personally see that 11 minutes sucked up
    with people standing around all the time.
    of they could run boats — and let me reiterate in the OFF SEASON — every 90 minutes rather than every 75 minutes. That would reduce the number of runs per day
    by 3 or 4.
    Those boats are rarely full anyway, and slower speeds save diesel fuel.
    Not to mention the ssa can’t staff the number of boats they are currently running.
    But, let me put one more thing into perspective–if one whale gets hit by a steamship
    vessel, where would the outrage be directed at ? And just because they
    have not seen any whales doesn’t mean they won’t. The climate is-a- changing–
    and the migratory patterns of the whales are -a- changing too, and the whales
    can’t get out of the way.. I’m disappointed with Mr. Keating.

    • Geraldine — thanks for the link.
      I posted this to him
      “Mr. Keating– I have agreed with you on almost every issue since I first voted for you. I am appalled that you are putting the profit margins of the Steamship authority over the safety of whales. I disagree with your argument that since there have been no whales seen on the route, there never will be. The climate is changing and so are the behaviors of whales. Please re consider your position. I feel strongly enough about this to vote for someone else when you come up for re election. Thank you”
      I urge anyone who is concerned about the safety of whales
      to let our elected officials know about it. Voting is the first step,
      holding our elected officials accountable is the next step.

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