NOAA looking to modify speed rule aimed at helping endangered right whales

Published: Sep. 22, 2022 at 3:37 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is proposing a rule change that could affect a lot of Georgia and South Carolina boaters.

The change is an effort to protect the highly endangered right whales. But some locals said they’re worried about how it might impact them, many saying this proposed change came out of the blue and caught them by surprise.

They say NOAA introduced this with little to no input from the recreational fishing and boating community.

“Everyone wants to be conservation-minded and everybody wants to do their part. It’s just how do we strike that balance,” Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Chair Spud Woodward said.

NOAA is looking to modify the Right Whale Speed Rule, to reduce the likelihood of entanglements or vessel strikes. This applies to the entire East Coast.

Currently, the rule says vessels greater than 65 feet need to slow to 10 knots, which is roughly 11 mph, during the whales’ calving period from November to April. The proposed change would make it so boats down to 35 ft or bigger would be under the same speed rules.

“Over the last decade or two there are much more boats in that size class out in the recreational fishing community,” Woodward said.

Woodward worked with the Georgia DNR for more than three decades and currently serves on numerous boards including the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. He says whale safety is always top of mind and a whale strike is tragic.

But he says the likelihood of a small vessel, such as a fishing boat, striking a whale is very small. He says driving 10 knots, for miles, trying to get to a fishing spot would have a big economic impact.

“If you’re contemplating losing four of those hours for travel time that may be just enough of a distance that I’m just not going to go. That’s where the concern comes in for the economic effect on all the ancillary businesses. The folks that sell the fuel, that sell all the supplies and that sell the tackle.”

Captain Judy Helmey, owner of Miss Judy Charters, says she takes people out fishing anywhere from 5 to 100 miles off the coast. An average trip offshore for her, to the Snapper Banks for example, is a two-hour run. She says they will not be able to make it work if they must double that travel time.

“We’ve been dealing with and avoiding whales all our lives,” Helmey said.

Woodward says he wants NOAA to hear from the boating and fishing community and consider a few things.

“One of the things they’ve pointed out is poor compliance, especially in Georgia. Well, what about boosting the enforcement of existing regulations,” Woodward asks.

NOAA said they can’t comment on any of these concerns because the comment period is still open. They did respond to those who’ve reached out with concerns and extended the comment period until the end of October. I