March 7, 2024

Overdue NOAA Whale Technology Workshop Highlights Real Conservation Opportunities

March 7, 2024 (Washington, D.C.) – Yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) North Atlantic Right Whale (NARW) Vessel Strike Risk Reduction Technology Workshop concluded in Arlington, VA. The workshop was the first time that representatives from the angling, recreational boating, and the marine electronics industry have been invited to the table to present ideas and ongoing work by their respective communities to conserve North Atlantic right whales while maintaining angler and boater access. Unfortunately, the workshop comes too late in the regulatory process.

A proposed rule by NOAA to implement a blanket vessel speed reduction to 10 knots (about 11 mph) for boats 35 to 65 feet in length over much of the Atlantic coast, and for many miles offshore, entered the final stage of the approval process with the White House Office of Management and Budget during the workshop. It is worth noting that the final rule under consideration could look different than that originally proposed.

“While the angling and boating community appreciates the opportunity to bring our thoughts to the table, we were not given the chance to be a part of the solution for North Atlantic right whale conservation when the proposed rule was being developed and when it really mattered,” said Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation’s (CSF) Senior Director of Fisheries Policy Chris Horton. “The workshop only reenforced the fact that a lot of information exists to help boaters avoid whales if NOAA would utilize the various platforms available to deliver that information electronically before we leave the dock or when we’re under way.”

Much of the first day of the workshop was focused on NARW biology, current methods for surveying whale locations, and emerging detection technologies, including satellite and infrared equipment on larger ships, which will continue to increase NOAA’s accuracy in knowing where many of the whales are in real time. However, it was clear that a lot of information already exists on whale presence that is not being made available to the public for fear of the potential to congregate whale watchers.

“Anglers headed offshore don’t want to hit ANY object, much less a whale that could cause harm to both the animal and the fishing vessel and crew,” said Horton. “NOAA could provide an important service to both boaters and whales by providing some general location of the whales. With relatively real time information on any given day, we could plan our routes to avoid potential encounters and significantly reduce the already extremely low risk of a vessel strike by a recreational boat.”

Information dissemination became a key focal point of the meeting on day two. Automatic identification systems (AIS) required on most commercial vessels and voluntarily used by some larger recreational boats already provide a viable pathway to push location information to mariners. While some commented on the difficulty of providing that same information to tens of thousands of recreational boaters, presentations from representatives of the marine electronics industry demonstrated that is not the case. Modern day chart plotters have the capability to receive updated information in near real time with internet and cellular connections. Location data simply needs to meet the interface standards of the National Marine Electronics Association so that it can be available across all brands of chart plotters. For those with older electronics on board, cell phone applications like Whale Alert provide anyone with a cell phone the same ability to receive information on whale locations.

“There were many good discussions around existing and potential applications to alert boaters and reduce the risk of vessel – whale collisions,” said Horton. “We sincerely hope NOAA will genuinely and expeditiously embrace these opportunities in the coming months to provide alternatives to proposed large area slow-speed zones that will severely impact angler access and costal economies in the Atlantic.”

CSF and members of the recreational fishing and boating community continue to strongly oppose the draconian North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Speed Reduction rule as originally proposed in favor of more realistic mitigation measures that use technology to conserve whales.

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