A New Restriction May be on the Horizon for Gulf Coast Boating: Petition to Establish Rice’s Whale Vessel Speed Zone

Impediments to boating access, in the forms of mandatory speed zones or restrictions on boat type or activity, stand to have a major impact on your business by either keeping boaters off the water or disincentivizing folks from buying boats. As the proposed Right Whale Vessel Speed Rule, which would mandate a 10-knot speed restriction along the large majority of the eastern seaboard as far as 90 miles off shore for boats 35 feet and above, continues to move through the regulatory process, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recently initiated another request for public comments on yet another petition to establish vessel speed measures to protect Rice’s whale, an endangered species located solely in the Gulf of Mexico.

Figure 1: The red represents the proposed area where the 10-knot mandatory vessel speed limit, and additional mitigation measures, will be in place.

Click here and fill out this survey to help us understand how these proposed regulations will impact your business.

As recreational boating industry stakeholders, we have a crucial role to play in conservation and ensuring a delicate balance between human activities and the marine ecosystem, while also preserving boating access.

Rice’s whale, also known as the Gulf of Mexico whale, is a majestic creature that is believed to only inhabit the Gulf of Mexico. Named after American biologist Dale Rice, this species was only recently recognized as distinct from the Bryde’s whale and determined to be a unique sub-species in 2021. Unfortunately, its population has been steadily declining due to various factors, and the current estimated population is fewer than 100 individuals.

After the discovery that the Rice’s Whale is unique and has a limited population, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Healthy Gulf, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earth justice and the New England Aquarium put forth a petition May 11, 2021, to NOAA, asking for the establishment of a mandatory 10-knot speed limit as well as other vessel-related mitigation measures for all vessel types and sizes during the entire year. After receiving the petition, NOAA has posted the petition and a call for public comments in the Federal Register April 7, 2023, with the comment period set to close July 6, 2023.

Th submitted petition seeks to implement mandatory vessel speed measures within the whale’s habitat to reduce the risk of ship strikes. It would also require all vessels transiting through the area to adhere to the following mitigation measures:

  1. All vessel operators must avoid transiting through the Vessel Slowdown Zone at
  2. All vessels must maintain a minimum separation distance of 500 meters from Gulf of
    Mexico whales. If a whale is observed but cannot be confirmed as a species other than
    a Gulf of Mexico whale, the vessel operator must assume that it is a Gulf of Mexico
    whale and take appropriate action for avoidance.
  3. Visual observers must monitor the vessel strike avoidance zone (500 meters). Observers can be either third-party observers or crew members, but crew members responsible for these duties must be provided sufficient training to distinguish aquatic protected species to broad taxonomic groups. Operators transiting through the Vessel Slowdown Zone must report their plans to NOAA Fisheries.
  4. All vessels 65 feet or greater must have a functioning Automatic Identification System
    (AIS) on board and operating at all times, as required by the U.S. Coast Guard. If the
    vessel does not require AIS and/or is less than 65 feet in length, AIS is strongly
    encouraged. Vessels that lack an operating AIS must provide the vessel’s name and
    call signs to NOAA Fisheries and notify NOAA Fisheries when they are transiting
    through the Vessel Slowdown Area.
  5. If a vessel operates in violation of these conditions, the operator must report the
    noncompliance to NOAA Fisheries within 24 hours.
Figure 1: The red represents the proposed area where the 10-knot mandatory vessel speed limit, and additional mitigation measures, will be in place.

The proposed vessel speed zone and additional conservation measures stand to have a significant negative economic impact on the recreational boating industry in the Gulf and surrounding coastal communities. With the Rice’s Whale habitat area overlapping largely with De Soto Canyon, a popular offshore fishing ground, it is easy to understand the challenge this petition presents for recreational boaters.

As boat dealers, it is essential for you to stay informed and engaged in discussions surrounding these issues. By actively participating in the public comment process and advocating for alternative solutions, you can help shape policies that strike a balance between conservation and sustaining the economic well-being of the marine industry. Are you a coastal dealer located in a Gulf state?

Click here and fill out this survey to help us understand how these proposed regulations will impact your business.

If you have any questions or want to get engaged, please email Chad Tokowicz, MRAA Government Relations Manager at Chad@mraa.com.

Impact of Proposed Rice's Whale Vessel Speed Zone

Would you please help the MRAA by completing this quick survey, so that we can better understand this far-reaching rule’s potential impact on your business and recreational boating and so that we, the MRAA, can effectively fight for your business. Have further questions regarding this proposed rule? Email Chad Tokowicz, MRAA Government Relations Manager.
What are your boats primarily used for?(Required)
Have you heard about the Petition to Establish Vessel Speed Measures to Protect Rice's Whales?(Required)
Do you believe that vessel speed measures will have an impact on boat sales in your dealership's region?(Required)
If the petition is successful and vessel speed measures are implemented, do you anticipate any changes in customer demand for boats?(Required)
Would you support the implementation of vessel speed measures if it helps protect endangered marine species like Rice’s Whale, even if it potentially impacts boat sales?(Required)
Would you be interested in participating in a stakeholder discussion or collaboration to find solutions that balance the protection of marine wildlife with the interests of boat dealerships?(Required)