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Commentary: Proposed speed limit for boats would devastate SC boating industry

Gettys Brannon (copy)

Gettys Brannon, CEO of the South Carolina Boating and Fishing Alliance. Provided.

Since COVID-19 hit, the federal government has insisted that we “follow the science” to protect ourselves. Other parts of the federal bureaucracy, however, make life-altering decisions without the benefit of science.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has proposed a regulation that, if enacted, would have a devastating impact on a major part of South Carolina’s economy, particularly along the coast.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, an arm of NOAA, would restrict speeds for boats between 35 feet and 65 feet to 10 knots (12.5 mph) for almost six months every year during prime boating and fishing season. The speed limit would extend as far as 60 miles into the Atlantic covering the entire Eastern Seaboard.

Today, that speed limit applies only to vessels at least 65 feet long.

The purported reason for including smaller craft: to prevent boats from striking North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species.

The problem: Despite repeated requests by the S.C. Boating and Fishing Alliance, the National Marine Fisheries Service has been unable to identify a single instance of a 35-foot to 65-foot boat striking a right whale off the South Carolina coast. Ever.

In other words, the agency is trying to prevent something from happening that has never happened.

In totality, the National Marine Fisheries Services states that vessels under 65 feet accounted for five of the 12 documented lethal strikes in all U.S. waters since 2008.

Let’s assume that’s correct. The agency’s own data indicate more than 92 million fishing trips have been taken in the affected speed zones since 2008. Of these, more than 5 million were taken on vessels 35-to-65-feet long. Assuming that all five right whale strikes were from recreational vessels, and that all these vessels were on fishing trips, the chance of a 35-foot to 65-foot recreational vessel striking a right whale on a fishing trip is about 1 in a million, according to a study by Southwick Associates. That’s roughly the same chance as getting hit by lightning.

We all can agree with a recent Post and Courier editorial that right whales should be protected. The S.C. Boating and Fishing Alliance and all our national partners would like to work with NOAA on a sensible solution.

But we’ve not been allowed to help. Instead, the agencies came up with an outlandish proposal that lacks scientific rationale and ignores far-reaching legal, constitutional, administrative and policy concerns without consulting anyone in the maritime industry.

Endangered animals are important, but so are people. If the proposed regulation takes effect, people will be hurt without any guarantee that the whales will be helped in any significant way.

Frank Hugelmeyer, president and CEO of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, calls it “an existential threat” to the industry. “The marine industry will be truly decimated if (the rule) goes into effect,” he said. “A 10-knot speed limit for all of the coast for most of the year — nobody will keep their boats.”

South Carolina’s boat and fishing tackle manufacturers own some of the most iconic brands in the world. They have a $5 billion impact on the state’s economy and support 23,000 jobs, many of which are along the coast.

The arbitrary speed limit would cripple our industry. Jobs would be lost from manufacturers to boat dealers, charter boats, tackle shops and tourism, and the quality of outdoor life of millions of people would be significantly impaired.

But it doesn’t stop at recreation. U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, along with their fellow senators from North Carolina and Florida, wisely warned against this overreach in a letter to the NOAA administrator. “We understand the proposed changes would challenge navigation safety, endanger mariners, and threaten the viability of South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida ports, as well as the boating and fishing industries and communities in our states,” they wrote.

If NOAA refuses to listen to our industry and senators, maybe it should heed the advice of a fellow bureaucrat, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who insists, “Follow the science.”

Gettys Brannon is president and CEO of the S.C. Boating and Fishing Alliance, which is headquartered in Columbia.

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