Mariners should care

Recognizing the need to protect wildlife from the threat of extinction and to encourage their recovery, the U.S. Congress wisely passed The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. 

Both laws took effect after being signed and approved by President Richard Nixon. While the ESA deals with wildlife at sea and ashore, the MMPA focuses specifically on marine mammals. 

The ESA prohibits any U.S. citizen or vessel in U.S. waters from killing, capturing, or harassing aquatic animals including sea otters, porpoises, manatees, and whales – defining harassment as “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which has the potential to injure a marine mammal in the wild, or disrupt its migration, breeding, feeding, and nursing.”

In accordance with the MMPA, different government agencies have been given the responsibility for the protection of various species. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is charged with formulating procedures and regulations to help ensure that all whales in our waters are protected. Over the years it’s done this by coordinating efforts to free those tangled up in fishing nets and gear and establishing speed rules to reduce the chances of them getting hit by a ship or boat.

Despite the agency’s best intentions and due diligence, several species of whales in the US have continued to experience a significant decline in their numbers. On the west coast that includes the endangered blue whale, and Alaska’s Cook Inlet endangered subpopulation of beluga whales. On the east coast the North Atlantic, thr right whale is critically at risk of becoming extinct. Tragically, only around 340 of these gentle giants remain.

In 2008, NOAA established regulations focused specifically on preventing North Atlantic right whales from being killed in collisions with watercraft over 65 feet in length. Codified in 50 CFR Part 224.105, the rules created ten “Seasonal Management Areas” along the east coast where, aside from certain government ships or in the case of an emergency, all applicable vessels are required to reduce their speed to 10 knots to help protect the whales that are feeding and birthing there. 

While these speed rules have had some success, since 2008 nearly 40 percent of the North Atlantic right whales killed in vessel collisions were struck by boats less than 65 feet long. 

A tragic example of this occurred in 2021, when a 54-foot sportfishing vessel from Florida traveling 21 knots ran into a baby North Atlantic right whale and its mother – the baby washing up on shore dead the next day with propeller cuts and broken ribs; the mother never seen afterward. 

So, near the end of 2022 NOAA proposed applying the 10-knot speed rule to boats 35-65 feet long. Almost immediately, the whining began.

One of the first to complain was the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), a trade organization made up of sportfishing equipment manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers that sell fishing rods, reels, and line to recreational boaters. 

Downplaying the risk endangered whales face due to speeding vessels, it asserts that if 35-65 foot boats have to follow the 10-knot rule during the few times of year it would be in effect, it would take longer to carry customers to the fishing grounds and back – resulting in less revenue for them.

Soon after NOAA proposed applying the speed rules to vessels between 35-65 feet, another “trade organization” called the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) also began lobbying politicians to oppose it – again for monetary reasons. 

The RFA is largely controlled by the Healey family, owners of the Viking Yacht Corporation, a firm that builds and sells $6-12 million luxury yachts that have a top speed close to 40 knots and a cruising speed of 33 knots, which the boat can maintain for 600 nautical miles. 

Ostensibly, to further his agenda, RFA chairman, Bob Healey ran for Congress in 2022, but was soundly defeated. 

His latest plan is reportedly to begin shifting the RFA’s money and resources to the ASA, so that they can use them to sway politicians against NOAA’s proposal.

Currently, the operator of a boat more than 65 feet long who violates the tenets of the MMPA faces fines of close to 100,000 dollars, forfeiture of the vessel, and a year in federal prison. 

Because NOAA’s proposal could apply to boats 35-65 feet long, operators of those vessels would also be subject to the same punitive actions for non-compliance. 

In my opinion, members of Congress should not be allowed to usurp NOAA’s authority to establish these regulations and penalties.

Authorities ashore are able to verify that vessels over 65 feet in length follow the speed rules by using data from their Automated Identification System (AIS) transceivers. Boats 35-65 feet are not currently mandated to carry AIS equipment, but under NOAA’s proposal they would be. 

Incredibly, the ASA and RFA are against the proposed AIS requirement because they believe these boaters will just “turn off their AIS systems in fear of triggering a speed restriction enforcement action” – essentially saying that their members already intend to break the law if enacted, even though it would probably result in the continuing mutilation and killing of endangered marine animals.

In my opinion, asking any power-driven vessel, no matter what the size, to slow down to 10 knots in certain areas for part of the year and to carry AIS equipment to help it operate more safely and accountably is not asking too much. 

Would we accept it if people refused to slow their cars down in a school zone, or thought it was okay to drive recklessly near playgrounds?

It’s time for boaters to accept that, like our children, all marine mammals are precious – and they deserve the utmost care and protection we can give them.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Capt. Kelly Sweeney holds the license of master (oceans, any gross tons) and has held a master of towing vessels (oceans) license, as well. He has sailed on more than 40 commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. He can be contacted by email at