The North Atlantic Right Whale is in trouble. But with proposed regulations to help the species potentially impacting the sportfishing industry, captains and others are pushing back about who’s really to blame.
Capt. Harry Garrecht captains M/Y Sea Deuce, a 64-foot custom Carolina. Garrecht depends on the speed of M/Y Sea Deuce to get him to his fishing grounds, canyons at least 80 miles offshore. Proposed speed restrictions aimed at protecting North Atlantic Right Whales by capping speeds at 10 knots would change his fishing trips and charters to 24-to-36-hour journeys.
“Your boat could do 24 or 25 knots and your customers are paying for that; if you have to do 10 knots, that’s going to cut down their fishing time and it’s coming out of their pocket,” Garrecht said. “Now that’s not fair to the captain, that’s not fair to the charter company, and that’s not fair to the charter guests.”
In August, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed those speed regulations for vessels greater than or equal to 35 feet in length for certain areas to help the North Atlantic Right Whale population grow. A final decision has yet to be made, and many in the sportfishing world are making their opinions known. Captains and others in the sportfishing industry say that sportfishing boats striking whales is unheard of, and that the restrictions could make the situation worse by forcing boats to travel more at night.
Even though many captains and crew are against the proposed regulations, it isn’t because of a lack of empathy towards right whales, said Capt. Vinny Delgado of M/Y Game Time.
“As sport fishermen, as recreational anglers and recreational boaters, nobody is against any type of conservation when it comes to marine life, but we all agree that we’d like to have some sensible laws,” Delgado said. “I think this is just a big blanket instead of trying to talk about it and figure out what the best way to handle this is.”
Struggling Whales in Changing Seas
North Atlantic Right Whales are one of the world’s most endangered large whale species, with fewer than 350 whales remaining, according to the latest preliminary estimate by NOAA. Commercial whalers nearly hunted the right whale to extinction by the early 1890s; even with whaling no longer a threat, the species never rebounded to its pre-whaling numbers. Right whales have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970, with human interaction presenting the species’ greatest danger. Vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear are the leading causes of death to right whales.
To help protect the species, NMFS and NOAA established regulations in 2008 that implemented speed restrictions of no more than 10 knots to all vessels 65 feet or greater. Right whale populations grew from 1990 to 2010, but then the species began to decline due to a combination of increased human-caused mortality and a decline in reproduction. In 2017, NMFS declared an ongoing Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for the species; there have been 36 confirmed mortalities, 33 serious injuries, and 29 sublethal injuries or illnesses from 2017 to today, according to NOAA. Vessel strikes made up 12 of the 36 mortalities, 2 of the 33 serious injuries, and 2 of the 29 sublethal injuries. Entanglements made up 9 of the 36 deaths, 30 of the 33 serious injuries, and 21 of the 29 sublethal injuries. This UME led NMFS and NOAA to propose changes to the 2008 speed restriction regulations.
NMFS and NOAA proposed changes to the North Atlantic Right Whale vessel speed regulations in August 2022. The proposal looks to implement a speed restriction of 10 knots to vessels greater than 35 feet in speed restriction areas referred to as Seasonal Management Areas (SMA), modify the boundaries of current SMAs, create a “Dynamic Speed Zone framework” that applies mandatory speed restrictions to areas outside SMAs when right whales are present, and update the rule’s safety deviation program. Current SMAs are scattered along the east coast of the United States at different times of the year, some extending up to 90 miles from shore and others lasting for as long as seven months a year.
Amy C. Hirons, a professor of oceanography at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, said the idea of the proposal is meant to help right whales locate the sound of oncoming vessels.
“Sound travels far greater distances underwater than in air, but the ocean is a noisy place,” Hirons said. “Cetaceans are far more adapted to being able to differentiate where the sounds are coming from, and that’s where the 10-knot proposed rule comes into play, is to establish where a boat is going to go, particularly a small vessel.”
A right whale has an easier time avoiding a large container ship that is traveling at 10 knots due to its lack of maneuverability, but a smaller vessel, even at the same speed, can pose a more difficult challenge to the species, Hirons said.
Another threat to the species is entanglement, but Hirons believes that recreational and sportfishing is not the predominant cause of these injuries to right whales.
“Based on my own experience with the fishing industry, meaning the recreational, it’s much smaller gear and much smaller lines than what we’re predominantly talking about with commercial fishing,” Hirons said.
Although smaller lines may not harm right whales to the extent that commercial lines can, they’re not completely harmless, according to Hirons.
“Even with a calf of a species that size, it’s probably going to break the line itself, but just like with any organism that doesn’t mean that it’s not potentially causing a problem,” Hirons said.
Impact on the Industry
“I don’t know where it’s coming from or where they’re finding the people that support this, but it obviously isn’t from around here,” said Capt. James Breen of the 65 foot M/Y Outnumbered about the proposed regulations. He sees fishing tournaments being impacted by the regulations the most.
“These tournaments are based around a time where everybody’s allowed to put their lines in the water, so we’re going to have to leave a lot earlier, and who’s to say you can’t hit one of these whales at 10 knots,” Breen said.
According to Breen, waking up earlier to arrive at a fishing location due to the proposed speed restrictions creates a safety issue as well. The earlier fishermen will have to wake up to arrive at their desired fishing location at a slower speed, the more time they spend traveling in the dark.
“We have good electronics and night vision to help us, but there’s no replacement for your own two eyes and daylight to see what’s in front of you,” Breen said.
John DePersenaire, the director of government affairs and sustainability at Viking Yachts, echoed similar safety concerns.
“The 10-knot restriction would make many of our most important fishing grounds inaccessible due to the time it would take to transit to and from those areas in a timely and safe fashion,” DePersenaire said in an email. “Our boats are designed to operate when on plane, when they have optimal visibility and maneuverability.”
DePersenaire also said that Viking has built and delivered more than 5,000 yachts since the company began in 1964, and they have never had a report of a vessel striking a right whale. Viking builds more than 20 models of vessels, and all but one is over 35 feet in length.
Capt. Anthony Pino captains a 64-foot custom sportfish vessel based out of Ocean City, Maryland. His fishing ventures along the East Coast have allowed him to visit different cities along the coast, and he believes a consequence of the proposed regulations would be sportfishing vessels outright leaving the country due to the proposed regulations.
“It’s not unheard of for a higher-level sportfish operation to take their boat somewhere else, so if you force people’s hands like this they’ll just leave and communities will dry up,” Pino said.
Economic hardships to coastal businesses are an unintended consequence of the proposed regulations, according to Pino. Some of the diners and lunch spots Pino frequents while sailing with his crew have a glaring sign that brands it as a local sportfishing eatery — yacht stickers. Certain locations allow yacht crew to stick their vessel’s sticker on a window or wall, showing future yachties and anglers that they’ve passed through. Pino sees hundreds of different stickers stuck around restaurants every season – one small sign of how much of an economic injection the sport fishing industry gives coastal businesses like these.
“It’s hard to understand the amount of money spent in fishing and what the economic impact of that can be, it’s hard for people that don’t fish or work in the industry to wrap their mind around,” Pino said. “When 40 sportfish boats show up for a tournament, it’s a lot.”
Hirons encourages captains and others to view a broader picture of ocean life. Although the proposed regulations would impact the sportfishing industry if they become law, so would the decline of the North Atlantic Right Whale.
“It’s very short-sighted to only consider what’s going on in the industry,” Hirons said. “Every organism fills a part in the food web, and while we’re talking about one of the largest animals on the planet, it eats some of the smallest animals on the planet. If those whales go away, or their population becomes so constricted, that is going to change the entire food web.”
New Rules or New Tech?
In December 2022, ocean conservation nonprofit Oceana announced that they filed an emergency rulemaking petition with Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and Assistant Administrator of NMFS Janet Coit, demanding the government implement the proposed regulations immediately as the right whale’s calving season was beginning with no changes to the regulations. The Biden Administration rejected that emergency petition. However, the denial of the immediate implementation of the proposed regulations does not mean that the change in regulations is now dead.
“The Fisheries Service proposed nearly identical protections to those requested by Oceana in 2022 and the White House has published its intent to finalize these changes by June 2023,” Oceana stated in a press release.
While all sides wait for a ruling to be announced, Viking has created the Whale and Vessel Safety (WAVS) Taskforce with hopes of developing and implementing technology to mitigate the risk of vessel strikes on marine mammals, with special attention to North Atlantic right whales. NOAA is aware of the WAVS Taskforce and has expressed interest in its work, according to DePersenaire.
“We will work diligently with NOAA on this issue and strongly believe that we can collectively protect the right whale through science and technology,” DePersenaire said.