By PATRICK GILLESPIE
Gulf of Mexico Vessel Speed Limits Petition Rejected
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration on Oct. 27 announced it denied a petition to establish mandatory speed limits in the Gulf of Mexico that could have affected shipping lanes to Florida’s sea ports.
In a news release announcing the decision, NOAA concluded that, “that fundamental conservation tasks, including finalizing the critical habitat designation, drafting a species recovery plan, and conducting a quantitative vessel risk assessment, are all needed before we consider vessel regulations.”
The organization received roughly 75,500 comments between April 7 and July 6. This was after in May 11, 2021, when the U.S. Department of Commerce and NMFS received a petition pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Healthy Gulf, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders
of Wildlife, Earthjustice, and New England Aquarium requesting that NMFS utilize its authorities under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to establish a “Vessel Slowdown Zone” to protect Rice’s whales from collisions with vessels and noise pollution.
According to NOAA, Rice’s whales are members of the baleen whale family and likely fewer than 100 individuals remain, making it one of the most endangered whales in the world. The Rice’s whale has been consistently located in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, along the continental shelf break between100 and about 400 meters depth. They are the only resident baleen whale in the Gulf of Mexico.
NOAA denied the petition because it is planning other conservation actions for the whales, such as finalizing critical habitat, conducting additional vessel risk assessments, and developing a recovery plan for the species. NOAA stated it agrees that education and outreach to fishermen, vessel operators, and other stakeholders should be prioritized. It’s unclear how those conservation actions will be applied, once finalized.
The Petitioners sought several protective measures, such as a year-round, 10-knot vessel speed restriction in certain waters between Pensacola and Tampa, no vessel transit at night, and certain travel reporting requirements. ●