A proposal to expand speed limit areas along the East Coast to protect right whales and their calves drew ire from Ocean City fishermen at a meeting Thursday with Rep. Andy Harris, R -1st-Md.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is proposing a federal rule that would expand the current 10-knot speed restrictions on vessels 65 feet and over to include all vessels 35 feet and over.
The rule would also expand the speed restriction zone from current right whale spawning areas to the entire East Coast from Massachusetts to Florida.
“Instead of the decision makers being educated about (our work), we’re just being told to do something with no steps to explain why,” said Jacob Wainglass, a charter fisherman in Ocean City. “It’s not a short trip where we fish. We go 50 to 90 miles. So when we add (speed limits), it’s three-quarters of a day just in traffic and it’s not practical for us. Our fishing days are over long enough”.
According to the federal administration, North Atlantic right whales have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970. The latest preliminary estimate suggests there are fewer than 350 left , with less than 100 breeding females. The number of calves born in recent years has been below average.
“They have experienced an unusual mortality event since 2017. Thirty-four North Atlantic right whales have been documented dead, 21 seriously injured and 36 injured or sick. This represents more than 20% of the population, which represents a significant impact on an endangered species where deaths exceed births,” the administration reports on its official site.
How could the fisherman be affected?
Wainglass’ work days could start as early as 2:45 a.m. with charter trips and the required boat maintenance that continues to see his day end at 8 p.m. Adding what he estimates to be three times the travel time to a standard day would contribute to fatigue and potentially dangerous accidents, he said.
“Time and time again, we regulate without consulting the people. If all of this happens, it’s going to be difficult,” Wainglass said.
One of the main concerns raised at the meeting held at the Sunset Grille in Ocean City was that the data is still unclear on how problematic whale strikes along the East Coast really were. Fishermen also argued that such a slow speed limit would add unreasonable travel time to commercial and recreational fishing trips, effectively crippling the industries.
The fishermen also added that those bringing their larger vessels from Florida to Ocean City docks would face extortionate travel times and could choose to stay at their home port, costing millions economic impacts in the city.
Madelyne Rowan, tournament director for the White Marlin Open, also warned Harris of logistical problems if right whales are even in the area, but not near tournament waters. With 444 boats participating in the 2021 tournament and millions of dollars in economic impact to Ocean City, Rowan sees these conservation efforts as a step too far by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“It will hurt recreational fishing in general. If a right whale wants to ping the area during the tournament, we have 450 boats that we have to try to manage,” Rowan said. “This could be devastating to our event. It’s important that all stakeholders have a say in policies like this. It seems like something is being rushed and it won’t be well received.”
For Rowan, the key is to compromise the speed limit to increase it by 10 knots closer to the usual 25 knots and minimize the area considered for the speed limit zone. But that requires federal agency representatives to actually meet with the fishermen.
How will Harris help?
That has been easier said than done, even when high-ranking federal regulators have been invited.
This is where Harris comes in. He was unaware of the regulations until his constituents contacted his office to discuss why there was “an apparent lack of transparency on such a scale.” He questioned whether the federal agency’s findings warranted such drastic conservation measures.
“First and foremost, administrators are expected to meet with the public. We’re engaging the legislative branch and clearly the executive branch is making this decision,” Harris said. “They should state to me and to the people involved that this is scientifically proven. What they are asking, in the case of charter boat captains, is to give up their livelihood.”
During the meeting, several fishermen pointed out that they are among the most conservative citizens, as they want to comply with reasonable and transparent laws. Many argued that they had never seen a right whale in the decades they had worked as watermen.
“Let’s look at the economic impact statements. If you took all the boats out of the water, the right whales are safer. But the only question is how many boats are you going to take out and what limitations are you going to put on those boats Harris said.