When Northern Right Whales and Boats Collide

Regulators are asking for comments from recreational boaters about new proposed slow zones to protect endangered northern right whales.

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Dead northern right whale calf
A 54-foot sportfisher ran into this northern right whale calf. The 22-foot-long right whale calf was found dead in St. Augustine, Florida. FWC/Tucker Joenz, NOAA Fisheries permit #18786

Over the last few years, there have been consistent reports in the media about certain ocean-related topics. The biggest one, or at least the one that has the biggest subjects, has to do with northern right whales. These magnificent creatures are disappearing right before our eyes. North Atlantic right whales are approaching extinction with fewer than 350 individuals and fewer than 100 reproductively active females remaining. Will efforts to save them be successful? I cannot answer that and feel even the scientists and regulators would have a hard time answering it. However, that does not mean we should not make every reasonable effort to help save them. It is my feeling that most folks in the recreational fishing community are genuinely interested in doing their small part to support survival.

Previous regulations have focused on minimizing vertical lines for lobster and net fisheries. Also, slow speed areas or Seasonal Management Areas (SMA) for larger commercial shipping, vessels 65 feet and above, to minimize ship strikes by reducing speed to 10 knots in these areas.

dead northern right whale calf on beach
A close-up of a series of propeller cuts on the left side of a northern right whale calf. One of the propeller cuts fractured bone in the whale’s upper jaw. Other injuries included broken ribs and bruising. FWC, NOAA Fisheries permit #18786

Certainly, some of the photos of dead whales show cuts that are from very large propellors, although statistics also indicate vessel strikes by smaller boats. NOAA Fisheries is now looking at expanding the regulated vessel sizes below the current minimum and establishing temporary Dynamic Speed Zones (DSZ) when concentrations of whales are located outside the established slow speed zones. These slow speed zones were previously called Seasonal Management Areas (SMA), and under the new proposed changes, would be called Seasonal Speed Zones (SSZ). Please forgive our government officials, they are enamored with acronyms. These changes would increase the spatial boundaries and lengthen the timing of seasonal speed restriction areas along the U.S. East Coast. They would also expand the required speed restrictions of 10 knots or less to also include most vessels 35 to 65 feet in length.

The American Sportfishing Association and other recreational fishing organizations are looking into the NOAA proposals to make sure that the new regulations will generate a real benefit for Northern Right whales and can be easily understood and complied with by recreational anglers.

One of the concerns that I see is how notification will be given to recreational anglers and boaters alike. This would include the basic regulations for the SSZs and ever-changing DSZs. This could be a real issue as violations incur substantial fines.

Looking at the current and the proposed SSZs, there are some possibilities that will impact offshore fishermen. The Atlantic area has speed regulations from November 1 until May 30. While this is largely during a time of lower activity, May will have to be carefully watched. The same is true with the Great South Channel area, with the month of June being the most problematic. The North Carolina, South Carolina and Southeast areas will bear watching during March and April.

dead northern right whale on florida beach
This North Atlantic right whale calf was found dead on a beach in Anastasia State Park in 2021, killed by a 54-foot sportfishing vessel. His mother, Infinity, was spotted later offshore with major propellor scars. FWC/Tucker Joenz, NOAA Fisheries permit #18786

It should also be noted that there is the inclusion of a new provision, applicable only to vessels less than 65 feet in length, which allows such vessels to transit at speeds greater than 10 knots within slow speed areas when a National Weather Service Gale Warning is in effect. (Also included, other National Weather Service warnings for wind speeds exceeding those that trigger a Gale Warning.) No reporting of any actual speed deviations would be required.

NOAA Fisheries understands that these regulatory changes for SSZs and DSZs will impact some recreational anglers. They want to hear from us about what we see as the impacts to recreational fishing. Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal. Click the “Comment” icon, complete the required fields and enter or attach your comments. If you think this will impact you, take the time to submit comments. It is an opportunity to be part of the process and comments do get read. The deadline is September 30, 2022.

Current Northeast Seasonal Management Area

Right Whale Seasonal Management Areas Northeast
Areas include Cape Cod Bay (January 1–May 15), Off Race Point (March 1–April 30), and Great South Channel (April 1–July 31). NOAA

Current Mid-Atlantic Seasonal Management Area

Right Whale Seasonal Management Areas Mid-Atlantic
Areas include the Migratory Route and Calving Grounds from November 1 – April 30. NOAA

Current Southeast Seasonal Management Area

Right Whale Seasonal Management Areas Southeast
Areas include the Calving and Nursery Grounds from November 15 – April 15. NOAA

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