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Right whale protections pit Rubio and Scott against environmentalists

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Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission

Proposals to protect endangered right whales from extinction have put Florida's two U.S. senators at odds with environmentalists.

Senators from Florida and the Carolinas are criticizing a federal plan to change seasonal speed limits on vessels near ports including Jacksonville to prevent collisions with the vanishing whales, the Florida Times-Union reported.

The proposal would broaden the area where a 10-knot speed limit — about 11.5 mph — is enforced and expand the rules to also apply to most boats between 35 and 65 feet in length.

In its proposal, posted Aug. 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that “changes to the existing vessel speed regulation are essential to stabilize the ongoing right whale population decline and prevent the species' extinction.”

The whales are particularly vulnerable to boat collisions off the Southeast coast, the species’ only known calving ground. The calving season starts in mid-November.

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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Only an estimated 340 of the whales exist after 34 deaths recorded since 2017. Eleven of the deaths were blamed on vessel strikes and nine on entanglements with mariners’ gear, according to NOAA.

One right whale calf died last year near the St. Augustine Inlet after colliding with a sportfishing boat, The Times-Union reported. The calf's mother was also spotted injured.

But the plan for reduced speeds has drawn criticism from marine industries and sportfishing groups worried about the effect on anglers. The senators echoed many of those concerns.

“Such a costly, sweeping proposal is excessive, and NOAA must find a better way to achieve its conservation goals,” Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott told NOAA head Richard Spinrad in a letter they signed with their counterparts from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, and North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis.

The senators said the rules also would apply the speed limit to offshore pilot boats that guide big cargo ships into ports trough federal navigation channels.

The channels “are marine highways that serve all the East Coast ports and are vital to the nation’s economy, supply chain and national security interests,” the senators wrote. "These speed restrictions should not apply [in navigation channels].”

RELATED: Read NOAA's proposal here.

On the other side, conservation groups filed an emergency petition Tuesday supporting the expanded speed zones. The Center for Biological Diversity, the Conservation Law Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife and Whale and Dolphin Conservation filed the petition with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Vessel strikes cause mortality and serious injury, along with sublethal effects that can weaken or otherwise harm right whales and make them more vulnerable to subsequent injury or death,” the petition said.

“Right whales are particularly vulnerable to vessel strikes because their habitat requirements and coastal migration necessitate their use of waters heavily traversed by shipping traffic, and their feeding, resting and socializing behaviors bring them to the surface quite often.”

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Randy comes to Jacksonville from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, where, as metro editor, he led investigative coverage of the Parkland school shooting that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for public service. He has spent more than 40 years in reporting and editing positions in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and Florida. You can reach Randy at rroguski@wjct.org or on Twitter, @rroguski.