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Guest column: NOAA regulations cast too wide a net
Guest columnist

By Savannah Maritime Association

Our coastal city is known for its rich history, architecture, and its Port. The port is a critical access point for national commerce and serves as a vital link to international markets. With more than 2.9 million imports and exports in 2022 alone, the Port of Savannah is the fourth busiest seaport in the country.

We are an important part of Georgia’s Atlantic shore is lined with coastal communities, recreational and commercial boaters and anglers, and diverse marine ecosystems. Georgia also shares its coastal waters with its state marine mammal, the North Atlantic right whale. To protect these fantastic creatures, in 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) enacted a vessel speed regulation in effort to protect the right whale from vessel strikes. Under the rule, vessels 65 feet or greater cannot travel above 10 knots in certain locations, or “Seasonal Management Areas” (SMAs), along the East Coast during designated times of the year.

Recently, NOAA proposed a vast expansion of its vessel strike rule that will have broad, unintended consequences for coastal Georgia. The proposed expansion would limit all boats 35 feet and larger from traveling faster than 10 knots within speed zones extending from Massachusetts to central Florida. Unlike the 2008 rule applying to large commercial vessels, the proposed rule would impact recreational boats, including charter fishing boats. For states like ours where recreational boating and fishing brings a $7.8 billion annual economic boost and supports more than 27,000 jobs, these proposed rule changes will have major consequences for many Georgians’ businesses, jobs, and livelihoods.

NOAA proposed this major expansion without real engagement or discussion with marine industry members or associations like ours. Our association works in conjunction with state seaports and commercial and community organizations across the local, state, and federal levels. Due to this lack of collaboration, NOAA’s proposed rule overlooks the safety risks that traveling at such slow speeds poses for smaller vessels. Speed capability in rough waters is a critical safety tool, but NOAA is seeking to require boaters to navigate unpredictable seas at the speed of a bicycle.

What’s more, the expanded speed zones would extend as far as 90 miles offshore, and last for up to seven months in some states, effectively deterring many citizens and businesses from venturing out to sea at all.

While NOAA published an economic impact analysis to accompany the proposed rule, their estimates fall short of the true scope of impact. NOAA estimates the annual cost of the rule to be just $46 million dollars. However, industry data shows the economic impact would be much closer to $84 billion dollars, and jeopardize many of the 340,000 jobs the recreational boating and fishing industry supports.

In one of the nation’s busiest seaports, it is nonsensical to think the regulations NOAA is proposing will not cause significant and dangerous consequences for the fishing boats, harbor pilots and recreational vessels operating in and out of the port. Fishing charters and harbor pilots navigating choppy waters and traffic at 10 knots is unsafe and will restrict how they operate. Beyond the safety implications, the speed limits will greatly increase the amount of time needed to conduct normal business operations, if not halting them altogether.

It is disappointing that NOAA did not attempt to gather input from associations like ours who represent many of the stakeholders who stand to be most affected by this rule. We implore NOAA to hit the reset button and do this right. We agree that protecting the North Atlantic right whale is incredibly important, but NOAA’s proposed solution is not the answer. We can work together on a commonsense approach that protects the right whale without causing unintended harm to Georgia’s maritime economy.

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