The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is preparing to finalize a sweeping expansion of its North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction Rule, in an effort to address the North Atlantic right whale’s unusual mortality event (UME), or the scientific term for a series of sub lethal injuries or mortalities over the course of several years. While the exact cause of the UME is unknown, we do know strikes from large ocean-going ships — like cargo ships, tankers, and cruise liners — as well as entanglements in commercial fishing gear and nets, are leading causes of whale mortalities and injuries.

In NOAA’s proposed rule, the agency inaccurately assumes that small boats under the 65 foot threshold are significantly contributing to right whale mortalities and strikes.

Under the proposed expansion, all boats 35 feet and greater cannot travel faster than 10 knots (about 11 mph) within a vast area extending from Massachusetts to central Florida. This includes areas up to 90 miles offshore, for up to 7 months out of the year in some instances.

The recreational marine community supports protecting the North Atlantic right whale.

While well intentioned, the proposed changes lack a data-driven approach to protect the North Atlantic right whale and are based on inaccurate assumptions. The proposed changes will put boater safety at risk, severely limit access to the Atlantic Ocean, and harm coastal economies. There is a better solution. By working together, we can develop data-driven, balanced solutions that protect our natural resources and way of life, including developing and implementing advanced whale-tracking and monitoring technologies that protect North Atlantic right whales, without jeopardizing safety and coastal communities.

What’s At Stake

The recreational boating and fishing industry wants to work in coordination with NOAA and key stakeholders to identify technology based, data-driven solutions – including innovative tracking and monitoring technologies – that protect the North Atlantic right whale without jeopardizing coastal economies.

Policies that achieve a balanced approach will protect the Atlantic’s ecosystem, boater safety, and an integral aspect of coastal economies. Without a more balanced approach, coastal communities and boater safety are at stake.

Economic Impacts to Coastal Communities

NOAA’s proposed rule changes will restrict access to the Atlantic Ocean, making boating and fishing trips unsafe and nearly impossible. Cancelling these trips means the economic contributions to coastal economies are nonexistent. Along the East Coast, 63,000 registered saltwater fishing boats are impacted, and 340,000 American jobs and nearly $84 billion in economic contributions are in jeopardy.

  • The recreational marine industry accounts for $203 billion in national economic contributions, supporting over 800,000 U.S. jobs and 36,000 businesses. In Atlantic coastal states alone, recreational boating and fishing is a crucial economic driver, supporting 340,000 American jobs and nearly $84 billion in economic activity. 

Boater Safety

NOAA did not take into account how small recreational boats under 65 feet are designed and used. Recreational boats are not large ocean-going vessels, which are built to cut through choppy waters and turbulent weather. Requiring small recreational boats to travel at 10 knots (11 mph) in the open ocean puts boats at greater chance of capsizing or swamping, putting boater safety at great risk.

  • Traveling at 10 knots (roughly 11 mph) in the open Atlantic Ocean is dangerous for small recreational boats. This speed restriction does not take into account how small boats are designed or used.
  • Unlike larger vessels, recreational boats are not designed to operate so slowly in open, often choppy, ocean waters, creating a greater risk of being severely damaged—even capsizing—in rough seas.
  • Expanding the mandatory speed restriction would impact 63,000 recreational saltwater fishing boats along the Atlantic coastline – far more than the 9,300 vessels originally estimated by NOAA in the proposed rule.
  • NOAA’s proposed “go-slow zones” would reach up to 90 miles from shore—including thousands of square miles of the ocean where North Atlantic right whales have not been observed in decades, or ever, forcing recreational boaters and anglers to forego their pastime altogether for fear of their personal safety.

Enforcement Challenges

The proposed rule changes exacerbate existing challenges of enforcement. The rule’s expansion to include recreational boats 35 feet and greater would task law enforcement agencies with monitoring tens of thousands of boats and vessels across a larger section of the Atlantic Ocean. 

  • NOAA acknowledged there is not sufficient funding or resources to enforce the current 10-knot speed restrictions for vessels 65 feet and greater.