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NARRAGANSETT, R.I. (WPRI) — Conservation efforts have come under fire as advocates and federal regulators push to save the North Atlantic Right Whale.

Courtesy: NOAA.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is considering expanding speed restrictions to more vessels in an effort to reduce the probability of boat strikes with right whales.

There are fewer than 400 individuals left of the species, which experts say tend to spend a lot of time near the surface and can be hard to spot due to their dark color. Right whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act, which was passed 50 years ago and also covers animals like the green turtle, the Atlantic salmon, and giant manta ray.

NOAA considering rule change

Currently, ships 65 feet or larger have to travel at 10 knots or less in seasonal management areas, which are determined by vessel traffic and right whale distribution data, according to NOAA. Federal regulators want to expand those management areas and apply the 10-knot speed limit to vessels 35 feet or larger.

More than 90,000 public comments were submitted in regards to the new proposal, with supporters saying the whale’s dire numbers justify the rule change.

NOAA data shows 98 right whales died or were injured in the United States in Canada from 2017 through March 2023. Of those, boat strikes killed 12 and injured 4.

NOAA data on unusual mortality event of North Atlantic Right Whales.

Critics concerned rule will impact business

The proposal has received pushback from Block Island Ferry operator Interstate Navigation, which says the expanded seasonal management areas would cover their routes. Port Captain Christian Myers told 12 News the proposed speed limit would would severely impact operations that are the “lifeline of Block Island.”

According to the public comment submitted by the company, the traditional ferry’s 55-minute run between Point Judith and Block Island would be extended to 90 minutes because of the 10-knot speed limit.

“It would very much be like going back 50 years in time, to a period of time when the ferries never went more than 10 knots if you will or even slower than that,” Myers explained.

In Interstate Navigation’s public comment, they proposed alternatives to changing the speed limit rules. The company asked that NOAA instead provide trained whale spotters for ferry trips, build a notification system to alert operators of the presence of right whales via email or text message, and decrease the size of the seasonal management areas and the length of time they apply.

Myers also said it’s uncommon to spot right whales on the ferry’s route.

“One could jump to the conclusion that Interstate’s just thinking about financial implications rather than the health and well-being of the right whales, and that’s not the truth,” Myers added. “If right whales were spotted every day, this conversation might be different.”

Dr. Bob Kenney, a marine researcher at the University of Rhode Island, argued captains can make up for lost time once outside those restricted areas, which are only active during part of the year.

The seasonal management area off Block Island covers the whales’ migratory route and calving grounds and only applies the speed limit from Nov. 1 through April 30. If passed, the proposal would enforce restrictions from Nov. 1 through May 30.

“So they’re going to have to slow down during certain times of the year, and for the Block Island Ferry, those slow times are more likely to be in the winter time when there’s not as many ferry runs,” Kenney said.

Courtesy: NOAA.

Critics, like Captain Domenic Petrarca, argue services like the ferry and commercial fishing are necessary year-round.

“But that would certainly curtail my ability to leave Portsmouth and leave Newport and travel 40 to 50 miles offshore, if I’ve got to do it at 10 knots it might just become completely unfeasible for me at that point,” said Petrarca, who is a commercial and charter fisherman.

NOAA said in a statement they expect to take action on the proposal by the end of the year. According to federal regulatory process, the agency can proceed with the proposed rule, modify it, or withdraw it.

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