NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Fishermen across the state are speaking out against a potential change in regulations tied to protections for an endangered species of whale.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the federal agency that monitors weather conditions and marine fisheries, put in place speed limits in certain areas in the Atlantic. The goal is to avoid boater collisions with the North Atlantic right whale, a species at high risk of extinction.
READ MORE: It’s been 57 months since WB was renourished — and it is delayed again
Right now, boats longer than 64 feet must proceed at a speed of 10 knots in seasonal speed zones enforced from Nov. 1 to April 30 in North Carolina. A decision is incoming on whether the speed limits will be applicable to smaller boats as well — a rule change that could impact charter and commercial fishing.
NOAA is deliberating whether it will extend the speed zone limits to boats measuring 35 to 65 feet. The agency proposed the change last July and garnered public feedback in the fall.
Along with including smaller boats, the change would create speed zones capturing the entire east coast, rather than sections of it with higher whale sightings. The rule would also establish temporary 10-knot transit zones when right whales are detected outside designated speed zones.
According to NOAA, there are fewer than 350 whales total and only 70 reproductively active females remaining. The agency has documented 98 deaths, serious injuries, sublethal injuries or illness cases in U.S. and Canadian waters since 2017 — classifying the cases as an “unusual mortality event.”
The cause is the Earth’s changing climate and prey availability, but NOAA states vessel strikes and entanglements “continue to drive the population’s decline and are the primary cause of serious injuries and mortalities.”
Since 2017, vessel strikes account for 12 deaths and two serious injuries. Entanglements with fishing gear contributed to nine deaths and 30 serious injuries. NOAA has been tracking a few whales for months in an effort to detangle them from various fishing lines. The most recent death was a 20-year-old male off the coast of Virginia Beach in February, caused by a vessel strike.
Right whales are more prone to collisions with boaters due to their coastal distribution, coloring that makes it hard to distinguish them from the water, and frequent appearances at near-surface depths. This is particularly true for females with calves.
However, Woody Joyner, president of the North Carolina Watermen United, believes the rule change isn’t necessary.
“To me this is a classic example of we need to do something in case something happens,” Joyner said.
It is unclear how many deaths or severe injuries occurred in North Carolina or by boats in the 35 to 65 foot range. Port City Daily reached out to NOAA requesting that information; the data was not provided by press.
Both Joyner and Tim Griner, North Carolina representative on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, said they were not aware of recent vessel strikes off the North Carolina coast. However, Joyner said he did hear of one in 2021 in the 35- to 64-foot range.
They also noted the species is more prominent off the coast of New England, rather than in the South Atlantic, where the water is cooler. NOAA’s speed zones seem to reflect this; states north of North Carolina have speed restrictions in place until May 30. Off the coast of Massachusetts, the Great South Channel must follow the rules from April 1 to June 30.
Griner explained requiring more boaters to reduce their speed does not correlate with diverting boaters away from whales.
“The ability to spot one in the water is more a function of weather and sea state conditions, as well as whale behavior than the speed at which a vessel is traveling,” Griner said. “There is no distinguishable difference in visibility whether you are traveling 10 knots, 15 knots, 18 knots.”
Instead, the speed limits will impede commercial and recreational fishing ventures, Griner and Joyner argue.
The 35- to 65 foot-boats will include recreational charters, with travel times of two to five hours to reach fishing grounds miles off the coast. While fishers may troll along the way, they pay to fish those fertile grounds miles off shore that charters offer access to.
“The speed rule would add over four hours to the travel time of a full-day charter, thus making it infeasible from a financial standpoint, as well as from a safety at sea standpoint,” Griner said.
Essentially, the rule would eliminate full-day charters in North Carolina during the winter months. According to Griner, the rule would also severely impact around 1,500 commercial vessels — 25% of the fleet — during productive fall fishing times.
If charter vessels intend to work within the speed limits, while also providing the same amount of fishing time for their paying customers, they would need to depart and return in the dark — when it’s harder to spot a right whale.
“If I had a sport fishing boat here in Hatteras Village, I would be cautious to go out of our inlet in the dark unless it was an emergency or I was saving your life,” Joyner said.
He added captains are only permitted to drive a ship for 12 hours at a time, so many expeditions would need at least two licensed captains. While not uncommon currently, some companies would need to hire another captain.
Griner noted the speed limits would also be largely unenforceable, as state agencies already have trouble holding boaters accountable due to limited resources and staff.
“It would be like putting a state trooper with a radar at every exit on every interstate on the east coast,” Griner said.
Ultimately, Joyner said those affected by the rule are not being heard.
“I know a lot of people from NOAA, I have a tremendous amount of respect for them,” Joyner said. “But it sounds like, to me, that this came about without a lot of shareholder interaction and very little research on what was going on.”
On NOAA’s website, the agency notes it held three public informational webinars in August to answer questions about the proposed rule and accepted public comment until October 2022. It is currently reading through the public comment to determine its final decision.
Instead of the proposed rule change, Griner suggested NOAA continue to monitor and observe current locations of whale pods during the migratory season and issue advisories to all mariners in real time.
However, NOAA notes the whales can be difficult to tag and track. Applying tags requires a research permit, which comes with specific safety requirements, and certain whales — the injured and calves — are not allowed to be tagged at all.
After clearing those hurdles, physically tagging the animals requires boats to approach the group, causing stress, and often the animals do not cooperate. On top of that, NOAA notes tagging is expensive, time-intensive and attachments only last days to months.
In NOAA’s view, the speed limit restriction is the best method to reduce dangerous situations for the right whale.
“We have made progress in addressing the threat of vessel strikes, but additional action is warranted to further reduce the risk of lethal strike events to ensure the species can get back on track to recovery,” Kim Damon-Randall, director of the office of protected resources at NOAA Fisheries, said in a statement on NOAA’s website.
The North Carolina Watermen United are suggesting a compromise: a moratorium on the speed limit from dawn to dusk.
In a statement sent to NOAA, the watermen stated:
“We feel that a reevaluation on the total hours of reduced speed is needed. This speed limit should only be imposed at night with vessels being allowed to maintain their normal speeds during daylight hours when visual sightings greatly reduce any chance of a possible interaction with a right whale.”
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com
Want to read more from PCD? Subscribe now and then sign up for our newsletter, Wilmington Wire, and get the headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.