Request for Comments: NOAA Fisheries Requests Public Comments on a Petition to Establish a Mandatory 10-Knot Speed Limit and Other Vessel-Related Mitigation Measures to Protect Endangered Rice’s Whales in Gulf of Mexico
NOAA Fisheries is requesting comments on a petition for rulemaking to establish a year-round 10-knot vessel speed limit in the Gulf of Mexico and other vessel-related mitigation measures in an area referred to as core habitat by the petitioners. Rice’s whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
NOAA Fisheries received the 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. The petitioners are requesting that we utilize our authorities under the ESA and MMPA to establish a “Vessel Slowdown Zone” to protect Rice’s whales from collisions with vessels and noise pollution.
NOAA Fisheries seeks public comment on the petitioner’s request. NOAA Fisheries is not issuing a proposed rule at this time. NOAA Fisheries will consider all comments and available information when determining whether to accept the petition and proceed with rulemaking.
Comments are due by July 6, 2023
Summary of the Petitioned Action:
The petition proposes a year-round 10-knot vessel speed restriction within waters between 100 meters (m) and 400 m deep from approximately Pensacola, FL, to just south of Tampa, FL (i.e.,
from 87.5° W longitude to 27.5° N latitude) plus an additional 10 kilometers (km) around that area (referred to in the petition as the “Vessel Slowdown Zone”).
The petition proposes the following additional restrictions within this “Vessel Slowdown Zone”: (a) no vessel transits at night;
(b) vessels transiting through the zone must report their plans to NOAA Fisheries, utilize visual observers, and maintain a separation distance of 500 m from Rice’s whales;
(c) use and operate an Automatic Identification System, or notify NOAA Fisheries of transits through the zone; and
(d) report deviations from these requirements to NOAA Fisheries.
The petitioners discuss the vulnerability of the species, identify vessel strikes and vessel noise as risks to the whales, and describe NMFS’ authority under the ESA and MMPA to establish a “Vessel Slowdown Zone” with regulations. The petition describes the features of a “Vessel Slowdown Zone” and asserts that the petitioned vessel-related mitigation measures are necessary for the conservation and recovery of Rice’s whales.
How To Comment On The Petition:
The comment period closes on July 6, 2023. You may submit data, information, or comments on this document by electronic submission or by postal mail. Comments sent by any other method (such as e-mail), to any other address or individual, or received after the end of the comment period, may not be considered by NOAA Fisheries.
Formal Federal Register Name/Number: 88 FR 20846, published April 7, 2023
Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal.
Click the “Comment” icon, complete the required fields.
Enter or attach your comments.
Mail: Submit written comments to Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Resources Division, National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Regional Office, 263 13th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who is the petition from and what action do they want?
NOAA Fisheries 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 we utilize our 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 in the Gulf of Mexico.
Why is NOAA Fisheries requesting comments on the petition?
NOAA Fisheries considers the substance of the petition is sufficient and meaningful for public comment. The Rice’s whale population size is extremely small, and as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA Fisheries estimates that their population decreased by 22%. Vessel strikes have been identified as a known threat to Rice’s whales and injury and mortality of the species from vessel collisions have been documented in the Gulf of Mexico. Actions to reduce the threat of vessel strikes have been considered in part through the 2020 Biological Opinion on Federally Regulated Oil and Gas Program Activities in the Gulf of Mexico and through the ongoing development of a species’ recovery plan, however, these efforts may not fully address all vessel risk to the recovery of Rice’s whales. This action allows the Agency time to continue progress on recovery planning, while also gathering critical public comment on a petitioned rule that may be evaluated as a conservation action for the Rice’s whale.
What information is NOAA Fisheries requesting comments on?
NOAA Fisheries is requesting information from the public, governmental agencies, tribes, the scientific community, industry, environmental entities, and any other interested parties concerning the petitioned action.
In particular, NOAA Fisheries is requesting information and comments on:
(1) the advisability of and need for regulations to establish a “Vessel Slowdown Zone;”
(2) the geographic scope of any such regulations;
(3) alternative management options for regulating vessel interactions with Rice’s whales, including but not limited to the options in the petition;
(4) scientific and commercial information regarding the effects of vessels on Rice’s whales, or other similar species, and their habitat;
(5) information regarding potential economic effects of regulating vessel interactions; and
(6) any additional, relevant information that NOAA Fisheries should consider.
NOAA Fisheries requests that all information be accompanied by supporting documentation such as maps, bibliographic references, or reprints of pertinent publications.
What will NOAA Fisheries do after the comment period closes?
NOAA Fisheries will consider all comments and available information when determining whether to accept the petition and proceed with rulemaking. If NOAA Fisheries decides to initiate rulemaking, we will notify the petitioners and publish a notice of our decision in the Federal Register. In taking any regulatory action pursuant to the petition, all procedural requirements for rulemaking, including notice and the opportunity to comment, would apply. If NOAA Fisheries decides not to proceed with the petitioned action, we will notify the petitioners and provide a brief statement of the grounds for the decision.
How are Rice’s whales protected now and where can I learn more about them?
Rice’s whales are protected under the MMPA and are listed as endangered under the ESA. In 2019, NOAA Fisheries listed the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale subspecies as endangered under the ESA. In 2021, NOAA Fisheries revised the common and scientific name to Rice’s whale, Balaenoptera ricei, and its classification to species to reflect the scientifically accepted taxonomy and nomenclature of the whales. Rice’s whales are one of the most endangered whales in the world, with likely fewer than 100 individuals remaining, and have a limited range occurring within the northern Gulf of Mexico along the continental shelf break between 100 and about 400 meters depth. More information on Rice’s whales, their population status, and Rice’s whale conservation and management may be found online at NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office Website at: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/rices-whale#overview.
Where can I find more information on this petition?