The Steamship Authority and other ferry services continue to make the case that proposed new speed limits on vessels to protect whales in the region are unnecessary and if enacted could significantly hinder service to the Vineyard and Nantucket. 

Earlier this month, Steamship Authority general manager Robert Davis went to Washington, D.C. to talk with lawmakers about the proposed measures, offered as a way to safeguard the endangered North Atlantic right whale. On March 20, Mr. Davis discussed the speed reductions and other Steamship issues with Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. William Keating, as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s staff. 

The talks came just a week after conservation groups called on the federal government to put a deadline on implementation of the new restrictions.

Fast ferry service from New Bedford could be cut out totally. — Ray Ewing

The rules were put forth by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2022 as the right whale species continues to creep towards extinction. Ship strikes are one of the major causes of death for the species, which only have about 350 individuals left. 

The proposal would put a 10-knot speed limit on a wide swath of the East Coast for vessels 35 feet and longer from November through May, as well as put in new speed zones if whales are detected. The speed limit was in place previously but only for boats larger than 65 feet. 

The new restrictions would include Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound, affecting the Steamship, Hy-Line and Seastreak ferries for the first time. The Steamship Authority said the restrictions would force deep cuts in the number of round trips per day to both Islands.

“The Authority remains strongly opposed to changing the current seasonal management areas and the implementation of mandatory speed restrictions,” Steamship spokesperson Sean Driscoll said in a statement this week. 

Steamship ferries on the Vineyard route currently cruise at about 13 knots. According to the Steamship Authority, the rule change would result in a loss of about one seventh of its roundtrips to the Vineyard. The ferry line would also face more significant cuts on the Nantucket-Hyannis route, where a fast ferry operates in addition to the traditional ferries, resulting in an overall economic loss for the Steamship Authority. 

Hy-Line and Seastreak both only run fast ferries, potentially putting their business model in peril, the companies said. 

Hy-Line only has fast ferries to the Vineyard from its Hyannis terminal in the summer, but the loss of the Nantucket route where it runs year-round would be a devastating blow. 

“Who knows exactly how we would look or exist,” said Murray Scudder, Hy-Line’s vice president. 

Seastreak would miss out on the first month and a half of its season, including Memorial Day, and its nascent winter commuter service would be jeopardized. 

“It would no longer make sense to operate the route,” said James Barker, the Seastreak director of sales and marketing. “Going from 28 knots at service speed to 10, it just wouldn’t be feasible to operate with the restrictions in place.” 

The ferry companies say they are supportive of right whale protections but they haven’t historically seen any whales on their routes, making the plan pointless. 

“Since we’ve started operating out of New Bedford... we have never seen right whales,” said Mr. Barker. “Our captains and crews, I’ve talked to them, nobody’s ever had a sighting.” 

Conservation groups are pushing for the regulations to be implemented and NOAA recently recommended the amendments to the federal Office of Management and Budget for further review, the last step in the rulemaking process. 

On March 15, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation nonprofit and other organizations called on a Washington D.C. federal court to push the rulemaking process forward after two right whales died from vessel strikes this year. 

“Vessels slowing down can save whales and people from deadly collisions, but sadly, the only thing slowing down is progress on releasing this rule,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation of North America. “Politics is now outpacing entanglements and vessel strikes as the biggest threat to right whales.”

Conservationists have argued that the current seasonal management areas, where slow zones can also be implemented on an as-needed basis, are based on information from more than a decade ago and don’t reflect where the whales now spend their time. 

In 2021, the groups filed a lawsuit for what they saw as the government’s failure to act. That case is ongoing. 

As the rule continues to move forward, the Steamship Authority said the discussions over the rules with lawmakers was productive and it will continue to argue against the proposed changes. 

“If that process proceeds, there will be another comment period, at which time the Authority will restate and share its concerns about the rule and the drastic effects it would have on the Authority’s ability to provide lifeline services to the Islands,” Mr. Driscoll said.