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NOAA proposes new speed limits for boats to protect right whale

NOAA was met with much protest to its proposal to install speed limits for boats 35 feet or longer during certain months when the endangered whale travels.

PORTLAND, Maine — A proposal by NOAA could enforce a strict boat speed limit to vessels 35 feet and longer by the end of the year in most Atlantic states.

The proposal is an addition to NOAAs efforts to protect the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, which has fewer than 350 remaining individuals.

The debate over how to protect the whale has been a heated one between regulators, fishermen, and environmentalists. The latest move by NOAA is bringing enforcement not only to fishermen, but to any boater with a vessel large enough.

While the proposal, if voted through, would only be in effect for half the year, it caught the ire of lawmakers and people who make a living on the water.

"In order for us to help save the endangered right whale, what we don't want to do is put human life at risk," Jeff Anger, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, said.

Anger said the speed limit NOAA is proposing of 11 miles per hour is too dangerous for most offshore boaters. He added the length of time it takes for people who work offshore to get to their location would be hours, compared to minutes.

"That's not the way we manage any resource in the United States," Anger said.

For Mainers who make a living on the water, the suggestion by NOAA seems flawed.

Jerry Leeman of Harpswell, said most lobster boats over 35 feet don't even go faster than 11 miles per hour.

He added the fiberglass or wood bodies of a lobster boat aren't big enough to hurt a large whale, and said most photos of propeller marks on deceased right whales come from propellers of much larger vessels such as commercial shipping vessels.

"If it hit the whale it would be destroyed," Leeman said about lobster boats.

He added more research should be done into offshore wind and the impact it has on the right whale, rather than restricting smaller boats. He said fishermen are careful to watch for a whale.

"It's not like you're on a joy ride and you see a pod of whales and trying to get close to them... we are doing our job out there," Leeman said.

Still, NOAA said its data shows ship strikes in general, along with fishing gear entanglements, are the leading cause of right whale death.

It plans to submit a final proposal to be voted on by the end of the year.

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