Washington, D.C. – October 30, 2023 – The recreational fishing and boating community is applauding the decision by NOAA Fisheries to deny a petition to establish a year-round 10-knot (11 mph) vessel speed limit and other vessel-related measures in the Rice’s whale “core” habitat area in the Gulf of Mexico.
The petitioners were asking NOAA to use their authority under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act to establish a “Vessel Slowdown Zone” from approximately Pensacola, Fla. to south of Tampa to protect the newly discovered Rice’s whale. The petition proposed the following restrictions:
- Mandatory 11 mph speed limit for all vessels transiting the proposed zone;
- No vessel transits at night;
- Vessels transiting through the zone must report their plans to NOAA, utilize trained visual observers, and maintain a separation distance of 500 meters from Rice’s whales;
- Use and operate an Automatic Identification System, or notify NOAA of transits through the zone, and
- Report all non-compliance to NOAA within 24 hours.
On June 21, 2023, leading recreational fishing and boating organizations submitted public comment urging NOAA not to initiate any rulemaking action based on the petition for the following reasons:
- The petitioners failed to put forward any evidence that recreational vessels pose a risk to Rice’s whales that would justify the significant rules proposed in the petition.
- NOAA has yet to engage with the recreational fishing and boating industry on Rice’s whale recovery planning or to better understand how recreational vessels may interact with Rice’s whales.
- NOAA needs to fully investigate and report on the likelihood of recovering Rice’s whales given documented concerns about its population size.
The public forcefully responded to the petition, and NOAA received approximately 75,500 public comments – many of which came from impacted anglers and boaters in the region.
“Anglers and boaters can breathe a sigh of relief that extreme vessel speed restrictions and other measures encouraged by radical environmental groups for the Gulf of Mexico are no longer a threat, but we must remain vigilant as threats to access are present on every coast. The recreational fishing and boating community sounded the alarm when these misguided restrictions were first requested, and tens of thousands of us spoke up – loud and clear – in formal comments and outreach to Congress. Earnest thanks to all our supporters who engaged on this proposed Gulf restriction,” said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy. “Draconian vessel speed restrictions were never the answer to 21st century conservation challenges. We have asked NOAA to work with experts from our industry in improving technology to help tell mariners where whales are instead of effectively barring public access to America’s marine waters.”
“We welcome this approach by NOAA, in which they listened to all stakeholders, including the recreational boating and fishing industries, and committed to using the latest science to inform their rulemaking,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president and CEO of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “This rule would have had dire implications on Gulf Coast communities, similar to what the proposed North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction rule will do to communities along the Eastern Seaboard. This harmful proposal would create one of the largest restrictions of Americans’ access to public waterways, put families at risk on the water, and have a devastating impact on economies up and down the Atlantic Coast. We will continue to engage NOAA and work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to find ways to protect the right whale that do not come at the expense of American livelihoods.”
“We thank NOAA Fisheries for recognizing the irrationality of this petition,” said Jeff Crane, president and CEO of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “The proposal to establish an oppressive rule that severely limits vessel speeds and prohibits vessel transit after dark in such a large area was based on presumption and attempted to circumvent a thoughtful, science-based process to arrive at appropriate and effective Rice’s whale conservation measures. We trust that the recreational fishing and boating community will be given a seat at the table should regulatory measures be necessary in the future.”
“While it’s a relief that the Rice’s whale vessel speed petition will not move forward at this time, the sportfishing community must stay vigilant, as this issue is far from over,” said Glenn Hughes, President of the American Sportfishing Association. “While others seem to want to solely rely on draconian vessel speed restrictions, our community continues to push for technology that will allow for more dynamic and effective mitigation of whale strikes. We will continue to advocate for Congress and NOAA to work with our community to fund and develop real time whale detection and mitigation measures that will allow for continued public access to the ocean while better protecting endangered whales.”
“We appreciate the agency’s decision to take overwhelming public sentiment into account on this petition,” said Mark Ray, chairman of Coastal Conservation Association. “There is work to do to properly protect whales, and we remain committed to working with our partners to find technological solutions that can achieve that goal and still allow access to our coastal waters.”