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NOAA Delays Decision on 10-Knot Atlantic Speed Limit

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Endangered whale species

A long-awaited rule that would expand boat speed restrictions to protect an endangered whale species won’t come out until next year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working on finalizing a proposaldirecting vessels between 35 and 65 feet to comply with a current seasonal speed restriction of up to 10 knots in designated areas from Maine to Florida. That speed restriction now applies to vessels 65 feet and larger to prevent injuring and killing North Atlantic right whales.

NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Janet Coit said at a Nov. 16 Smithsonian event on endangered whales not to expect a final rule in 2023, Lara Levison, senior director of federal policy at international non-profit ocean conservancy group Oceana, and Alex Aines, a marine scientist with Oceana, confirmed. “No reason given, and no other date given,” said Aines.

The agency did not say definitively when the rule would be published. “NOAA received over 90,000 comments and will use them to inform its final action on the proposed rule, which it is working to finalize in 2023, but may extend into 2024,” said NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Lauren Gaches.

Last month, Coit told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee the agency expected to finish the rule by the end of the year.

The Biden administration’s efforts to augment protections for the whales have irked various industries, including recreation fishing and boat pilots, spawning legislation to scale back proposed speed restrictions on vessels.

Whales, Energy, and Boat Interests Colliding on Land and Sea

About 350 or so North Atlantic right whales, including fewer than 70 reproductive females, remain on the planet. Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the greatest threats to the species, which tend to rest near the surface of the ocean and can be difficult to see, especially at night, because their dark color blends with the water and they lack a dorsal fin.

The whales’ calving season is underway and runs through the early spring. Aines said Oceana and other advocates for expanding the vessel speed restrictions had hoped NOAA would complete the rule before the start of calving season.