Right whales are endangered with only about 350 remaining in the wild, according to NOAA. (Courtesy NOAA)

NC - Change in federal whale protections could have dire effects on fishing industry

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Fishermen across the state are speaking out against a potential change in regulations tied to protections for an endangered species of whale.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the federal agency that monitors weather conditions and marine fisheries, put in place speed limits in certain areas in the Atlantic. The goal is to avoid boater collisions with the North Atlantic right whale, a species at high risk of extinction.

Right now, boats longer than 64 feet must proceed at a speed of 10 knots in seasonal speed zones enforced from Nov. 1 to April 30 in North Carolina. A decision is incoming on whether the speed limits will be applicable to smaller boats as well — a rule change that could impact charter and commercial fishing.

NOAA is deliberating whether it will extend the speed zone limits to boats measuring 35 to 65 feet. The agency proposed the change last July and garnered public feedback in the fall.  

Along with including smaller boats, the change would create speed zones capturing the entire east coast, rather than sections of it with higher whale sightings. The rule would also establish temporary 10-knot transit zones when right whales are detected outside designated speed zones.

According to NOAA, there are fewer than 350 whales total and only 70 reproductively active females remaining. The agency has documented 98 deaths, serious injuries, sublethal injuries or illness cases in U.S. and Canadian waters since 2017 — classifying the cases as an “unusual mortality event.”

The cause is the Earth’s changing climate and prey availability, but NOAA states vessel strikes and entanglements “continue to drive the population’s decline and are the primary cause of serious injuries and mortalities.”

Since 2017, vessel strikes account for 12 deaths and two serious injuries. Entanglements with fishing gear contributed to nine deaths and 30 serious injuries. NOAA has been tracking a few whales for months in an effort to detangle them from various fishing lines. The most recent death was a 20-year-old male off the coast of Virginia Beach in February, caused by a vessel strike.

Right whales are more prone to collisions with boaters due to their coastal distribution, coloring that makes it hard to distinguish them from the water, and frequent appearances at near-surface depths. This is particularly true for females with calves.

However, Woody Joyner, president of the North Carolina Watermen United, believes the rule change isn’t necessary.

“To me this is a classic example of we need to do something in case something happens,” Joyner said.

It is unclear how many deaths or severe injuries occurred in North Carolina or by boats in the 35 to 65 foot range. Port City Daily reached out to NOAA requesting that information; the data was not provided by press.

Both Joyner and Tim Griner, North Carolina representative on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, said they were not aware of recent vessel strikes off the North Carolina coast. However, Joyner said he did hear of one in 2021 in the 35- to 64-foot range.

They also noted the species is more prominent off the coast of New England, rather than in the South Atlantic, where the water is cooler. NOAA’s speed zones seem to reflect this; states north of North Carolina have speed restrictions in place until May 30. Off the coast of Massachusetts, the Great South Channel must follow the rules from April 1 to June 30.

Griner explained requiring more boaters to reduce their speed does not correlate with diverting boaters away from whales.

“The ability to spot one in the water is more a function of weather and sea state conditions, as well as whale behavior than the speed at which a vessel is traveling,” Griner said. “There is no distinguishable difference in visibility whether you are traveling 10 knots, 15 knots, 18 knots.”

Read more.