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Okaloosa County calls emergency meeting to discuss proposed 10-knot speed limit in Gulf for endangered whales

On Monday, July 3, 2023, the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners will hold an Emergency Meeting to discuss a petition to establish a mandatory 10-knot speed limit and other vessel-related […]

Rice's whale (NOAA)

On Monday, July 3, 2023, the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners will hold an Emergency Meeting to discuss 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.

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has requested public comments on the petition that was submitted by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Healthy Gulf, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, and New England Aquarium.

Rice’s whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The petitioners are requesting that the county utilize their authorities under the ESA and MMPA to establish a “Vessel Slowdown Zone” to protect Rice’s whales from collisions with vessels and noise pollution.

The proposed measures include a year-round 10-knot speed restriction within waters ranging from approximately Pensacola, FL, to just south of Tampa, FL, covering an area from 87.5° W longitude to 27.5° N latitude. 

  • Additionally, a 10-kilometer radius around the designated area, referred to as the “Vessel Slowdown Zone,” would also be subject to the speed limit.

Additional restrictions within this “Vessel Slowdown Zone” include:

  • No vessel transits at night;
  • 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;
  • Use and operate an Automatic Identification System, or notify NOAA Fisheries of transits through the zone; and
  • Report deviations from these requirements to NOAA Fisheries.
A Rice’s whale surfaces in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: NOAA Fisheries (NMFS ESA/MMPA Permit No. 14450).

NOAA Fisheries is seeking public input on the petitioner’s request and will consider all comments and available information before making a decision on whether to proceed with rulemaking. Members of the public can submit their comments here. The comment period will close on Thursday, July 6, 2023.

However, local concerns have been raised regarding the potential impact these regulations may have on commercial vessel traffic in-and-out of the ports of Pensacola and Panama City, as well as the commercial and recreational fishing fleets here in Okaloosa County. 

  • The prohibition on night travel could significantly disrupt commercial fishing trips and transit operations at the two local ports, according to the county. At present, the economic implications of these potential restrictions have not been quantified but could be substantial.

The commissioners will convene an emergency meeting on Monday, July 3, 2023, at 8:30am in the Okaloosa County Administration Building in Shalimar, Florida to discuss the potential implications of the proposed regulations. The Board will send a formal response to NOAA prior to the comment deadline period of July 6, 2023.

  • Local stakeholders, including fishermen, boat operators, and environmental advocates, are encouraged to voice their opinions and participate in the ongoing dialogue surrounding this issue.

7 Responses

  1. As I understand, only Florida would be affected by this ruling. Why? Don’t the whales swim near the other states ports/coastlines? Sounds like a punishment ruling to me.

  2. How many of these whales travel in the panhandle waters? How many of these whales have been harmed by the panhandle boaters? I would want answers to these questions before making any types of decisions

  3. We have Whales??? Where, When, How, Who has been holding on to this information?… People want to know!!! Why are we the only county being punished???

  4. Every comment here is as ignorant as it could possibly be. A simple Google search would explain that these whales are the only baleen species that are native to our waters year around. They are even commonly referred to as the Gulf Of Mexico whale. And the reason they are not seen often is because there are only 51 of them left….. threats to them include boating collisions, acoustic disturbances, and marine debris just to name a few.
    I FULLY support these new rules being put in place.

  5. Layfayette Francois says ! ,,,, When these people think of the very lively hood that feeds their families and has fed their families for generations , the massive economic impact to the already sub par economy ….Mr. Francois if a black bear wanders into your back yard ,, does it make much sense to , fence off your neighborhood and , impose RIDICULOUS rules when and how you and your neighbors could your homes neighbor hood ,,,I think YOUR ignorant to site 100 % unfounded threats .
    Regards and have a great day

  6. According to the most current research by NOAA, they live primarily @ roughly 100 and 400 meters depth and spend most of their time within about 50 feet of the water’s surface.
    There has been one cited boat strike in the Tampa Bay area in 2009. Lastly, they have been found as far west as Texas and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill reduced their population by 22% (a much greater impact than the 1 cited boat strike in Tampa Bay). With all these facts, it seems a bit extreme to post such a mandate on smaller vessels such as our local fishing fleet in this region. To me it would seem logical to make new mandated regulations for the larger draft vessels as well as the oil industry, and should not be localized to the NE gulf, but the other states as well that fall into their habitat.

    I found all this info from this link…

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