U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican who represents Coastal Georgia, opposes a proposed federal rule meant to protect the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale population.

Fewer than 350 of these whales remain and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries earlier this month declared the population “in crisis” after realizing their population was even smaller than previously estimated.

Commercial whalers hunted right whales nearly to extinction in the 1800s, when the whales got their name for being the “right” whale to hunt because they swim slowly and float when killed, making them easier to tow back to port. Whaling ceased after the development of cheaper alternatives to whale oil, but whales reproduce slowly and their numbers remained low throughout the last century. Recovery efforts in the 1990s and 2000s boosted the population to nearly 500 by 2010. 

Right whale Catalog #2029 ‘Viola’ and calf sighted on January 6, 2023 approximately 11NM off Cumberland Island, GA. Catalog #2029 is 33 years old and this is her 4th calf.
Right whale Catalog #2029 ‘Viola’ and calf sighted on Jan. 6, 2023, approximately 11 nautical miles off Cumberland Island. Catalog #2029 is 33 years old and this is her fourth calf. Credit: Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556

But researchers have documented an unexpectedly sharp decline since 2017. Most of the 114 right whale deaths, injuries and illnesses recorded over the last six years involve either entanglement in fishing gear or a vessel strike. 

To address the latter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has proposed expanding its ship speed rule. Vessels 65 feet or longer are already required to slow to 10 knots (about 11.5 mph) when whales are expected to be present in an area. NOAA proposes to impose the speed limit on smaller boats as well, those from 35-65 feet.

The agency also proposes expanding the areas and adjusting the dates for which the rule applies. These changes are minor in Georgia, as the map below shows. The proposed rule would actually shorten the season on the northern portion of Georgia’s coast by 15 days, making it run from Nov. 1 to April 15.

In late June, Carter introduced H.R. 4323 to pause the funding of this rule until the Department of Commerce can fully implement new monitoring systems for North American right whales. His initial co-sponsor was Democrat Mary Peltola of Alaska, where this species is not present.

As of July 25, no text had been provided for the bill, titled “To prohibit the issuance of an interim or final rule that amends, updates, modifies, or replaces the North Atlantic Right Whale vessel strike reduction rule until mitigation protocols are fully developed and deployed.”

The Current emailed Carter’s communications director, Harley Adsit, requesting the sources for Carter’s claims regarding the right whale speed rule’s impacts on boating and fishing, but the email was not acknowledged. Also, reporter Mary Landers asked a question about these effects during Carter’s July 6 telephone town hall and left a voicemail message after the town hall, as the congressman and his staff encouraged those participants to do when time for questions ran short. Despite assurances from Carter and his staff that those questions would be answered, they did not reply. 

Here’s a list of claims and the facts around them.

Claim: The risk of hitting a whale is one in a million, so the rule will do little to protect whales.

“Again, we want to protect the right whales. However, even if you use NOAA’s figures, you’ll see that the chances of one of these boats hitting a right whale, (are) less than one in a million — right at one in a million,” Carter said in a July 6, 2023, telephone town hall.

The one in a million figure apparently comes from a study conducted for the American Sportfishing Association by  Southwick Associates, a Florida-based “market and research firm, specializing in the hunting, shooting, sportfishing, and outdoor recreation markets,” according to its website. Using NOAA data and making what they say are conservative assumptions, the study’s authors estimated  5.1 million recreational fishing trips were taken in 35-65 foot boats over the course of the time period when five right whales were killed by vessel strikes. Assuming all five whales were killed by recreational fishing vessels in that size range, the risk for each boat of hitting a whale is at most one in a million, the study concludes. (Read the study in Appendix A of this comment letter to NOAA.)

But Jessica Redfern of the New England Aquarium notes the risk to individual boats is different from the risk to individual whales. 

“While the risk of any single boat hitting a whale is small, you must take into account all of the vessels on the water. When you consider the risk across all vessels, you get to a high level of risk for each right whale,” Redfern, associate vice president for ocean conservation science at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium wrote in an email to The Current.

Barb Zoodsma, retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southeast Region’s North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Program Coordinator, puts it another way: 

“The fact that any boat has such a low probability of striking a whale but whales continue to get hit speaks to the sheer volume of boats out there,” she wrote in an email to The Current.  

“I looked at the last four years of calving and calculated that just over 5% of North Atlantic right whale calves were struck and killed by vessels before they even reached one year of age.”

That’s three of the 55 calves born in the last four seasons. In January 2020 the calf of a whale nicknamed Derecha was struck off Georgia and its face was cut off, Zoodsma wrote. In June of that same year Snow Cone’s calf was struck twice off New Jersey, killing it. In February 2021 both Infinity and her new calf were struck and killed by a 54-foot sportfisher near St. Augustine. 

The nonprofit environmental advocacy group One Hundred Miles rejected the claim in an open letter to Rep. Carter.

“(T)here is not a “one in a million chance” that a whale will be killed by a small vessel — far from it. According to NOAA and GADNR data, since 2005 there have been at least nine right whale collisions involving vessels under 65 feet. Consider that we’re talking about fewer than 340 total whales remaining on this planet (a smaller population than most high schools in District 1), and the true risk becomes alarmingly high.”

Claim: Upgrades in technology are more effective than speed restrictions. 

“Finally, this rule does not factor in new technologies that are helping boaters monitor right whales from underwater in real time. These upgrades are considerably more effective than speed restrictions and allow businesses to continue thriving alongside the right whale population,” Carter wrote in July 2, 2023 newsletter. 

The consensus in the scientific community is that technology cannot fix this problem, at least not yet. 

“Real-time monitoring technologies that could help prevent right whale-vessel collisions are just not ready yet,” Jane Davenport, senior attorney with Defenders of Wildlife said in a prepared statement. “We don’t rely on collision avoidance warnings in cars to protect kids going to school—we protect them with mandatory slow-down zones. The best available science shows us slower speeds prevent vessel strikes. Congress should not interfere with this science-based rule-making process.”

Researchers who are working on ways to monitor whales with fixed buoys and underwater drones cite major obstacles to applying acoustic detection technology to the right whale calving grounds. 

Right whale mothers are typically quiet when caring for their new calves, so as not to draw the attention of predators, said University of South Carolina researcher Erin Meyer-Gutbrod, who led the team that listened to whale recordings from Georgia waters last winter and spring. 

Acoustic detection could also create a false sense of security if mariners misinterpret a lack of detected whale calls to mean the whales are not aren’t present. That’s not necessarily the case.

“We can’t tell you when they’re not there,” UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography researcher Catherine Edwards told The Current earlier this year. “There’s evidence that right whales go quiet, sometimes, related to human activity.”

A dead North Atlantic right whale stranded on Virginia Beach, and was later identified as right whale #3343. The New England Aquarium identified the whale as right whale #3343, a 20-year-old male. His last confirmed sighting was on Dec. 26, 2022 off the coast of Georgia. Experts determined the injuries are consistent with a vessel strike.
A dead North Atlantic right whale stranded on Virginia Beach, and was later identified as right whale #3343. The New England Aquarium identified the whale as right whale #3343, a 20-year-old male. His last confirmed sighting was on Dec. 26, 2022, off the coast of Georgia. Experts determined the injuries are consistent with a vessel strike. Credit: Credit: Virginia Aquarium, taken under NOAA permit #24359

Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division biologists wrote in their comment on the proposed rule in October that technological fixes are still in development.

“There are currently no technological solutions to prevent vessel strikes,” they wrote. “That leaves speed reduction and vessel routing measures as the primary tools to manage whale/vessel collision risk.”

Claim: The speed rule will endanger harbor pilots. 

“On top of that, harbor pilot’s safety is put at risk when their speeds are limited, meaning we are risking human lives for the one in a million chance that we could save just one right whale,” Carter wrote in his July 2, 2023, newsletter.

The Savannah Pilots Association agrees with Carter that the proposed rule puts their safety at risk. 

To comply with the existing right whale speed restrictions, they spent about $18 million on three pilot boats that are 64.5 feet long. The new boats have planing hulls so they ride higher in the water and employ jets rather than propellers. Both features make them safer for whales, they argue. But they’re hard to operate safely at the required speed.

The GADNR makes similar points. In its comment letter, the agency notes there have been nine known collisions since 2000 in which vessels less than 65 feet long killed or injured right whales. None of the collisions involved vessels with jet propulsion.

“NOAA should assess if a higher (e.g., 20-knot) speed limit for outboard and water jet powered vessels would reduce collision risk compared to the status quo,” they write. “The 10-knot speed limit in the current rule was derived using data on whale collisions with ships and large vessels and may not accurately characterize the risk from smaller, shallow draft vessels.”

DNR also points out a practical issue on enforcement. Vessels over 65 feet long are required to have automated tracking that NOAA can use to monitor compliance remotely and retroactively. Most smaller vessels aren’t required to have this equipment.

“We have significant concerns about the ability of NOAA or other law enforcement agencies to enforce the proposed rule,” they wrote.

The proposed rule does allow for safety exceptions to the speed rule but would require documentation within 48 hours of the conditions that necessitated breaking the speed limit. The pilots find these requirements onerous.

The pilots do not suggest a technological fix. They instead want pilot delivery boats and federally maintained channels exempted from the proposed  speed restrictions altogether. 

“There are less than 30 dedicated pilot boats on the U.S. East Coast and all of them are crewed by licensed, professional Merchant Mariners,” they wrote in their comment letter to NOAA. “There has never been a documented strike of a North American (sic) Right Whale by a pilot boat.  Exempting pilot boats is a very simple and effective means of allowing our pilots and boat crews to operate in a safe manner.”  

Claim: 27,000 direct and indirect jobs are threatened in Georgia if the rule takes effect.

“But the recreational fishing by itself — directly and indirectly — accounts for 27,000 jobs here in the state of Georgia — 27,000. Now, if NOAA passes this rule, it’ll devastate that — put those jobs in jeopardy,” Carter said during his July 6, 2023, telephone town hall. 

In his June 27, 2023, press release this claim morphed into 27,000 businesses rather than jobs: “We all want to protect the right whale from extinction, but this is the wrong way to do it,” said Rep. Carter. “Before implementing a sweeping rule that will kneecap small businesses up and down the east coast, including 27,000 in Georgia alone, we must use all of the technological advancements at our disposal so that right whales and business owners can thrive together.”

“This bill comes after boaters, harbor pilots, and business owners raised concerns that the new safety regulations, nobly designed to protect the right whale from extinction, will pose safety risks for commercial vessels, threaten up to 340,000 American jobs, and negatively impact nearly $84 billion in economic contributions.” (Carter, news release, June 27, 2023).”

Again, while Carter’s office has not replied to requests to provide the sources of the congressman’s claims regarding the right whale, the 27,000 jobs that Carter says would be imperiled by the proposed NOAA rule mirrors the figure — 27,096 — that an industry group, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, cites to describe the number of jobs supported by recreational boating not just in Coastal Georgia but across the entire state. Plenty of boating takes place in Georgia’s lakes and rivers, where it won’t all be affected by the rule. Nor will Georgia be affected from April 15 through Nov. 1 each year when the whales have migrated north and the speed rule is not in effect here. The NMMA puts the total jobs supported by recreational boating in Carter’s Congressional District 1, which covers the Georgia coast, at 2,614, less than a tenth of the number Carter cites. 

Further countering Carter’s claim is the fact that the proposed expansion of the ship speed rule would apply only to boats that are 35 feet or longer. That’s less than 5% of the boats registered in the U.S., the NMMA reports. In Georgia, the Department of Natural Resources reported a little over 20,000 vessels (excluding personal watercraft) were registered in the six coastal counties as of March, but only 272 of them were listed as 35 feet or longer.  

Carter’s national figures also apparently come from NMMA and tally statewide jobs and economic activity supported by all recreational boating, regardless of boat size, in all the East Coast states from Florida to Massachusetts,  NMMA spokeswoman Lauren Hyland said.  

Claim: The area off Georgia is a mating or breeding area for North Atlantic right whales.

“Fifteen miles off our coast, you’ll find the only known breeding ground for this species, one that is both majestic and endangered,” Carter wrote in his July 2, 2023, newsletter.

The area off the Georgia, southern South Carolina and northeastern Florida coast is the only known calving area for North Atlantic right whales. The adult females come to this area to give birth. The water temperature is thought to be part of the draw, said Cathy Sakas, a retired NOAA marine educator who lives on Tybee. 

The only time they come down our way is pregnant females come down here to give birth,” she said. “And the reason is because mama has got about a little over a meter of blubber, and baby has just a smidgen. So we’re the happy medium, we’re not too hot for mama and not too cold for baby.”

Barb Zoodsma, who recently retired as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southeast Region’s North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Program Coordinator, confirmed that Georgia is where whales give birth, but not where they mate, as Carter asserts.

Mating, to my knowledge, has never been observed here,”  she wrote in an email to The Current. 

“I’m sure that’s an innocent misunderstanding/mis-speak on Mr. Carter’s part (that this is a breeding area) – but, a good example of why he shouldn’t meddle in this and leave it up to the normal rule-making process,” Zoodsma wrote.

Claim: The right whale is Georgia’s state mammal.

“And look, we all want to protect the right whale, the right whale is the state mammal of Georgia, we love the right whale, we want to protect it,” Carter told the House Natural Resources Committee at a hearing June 6, 2023.

“They are the state mammal of the state of Georgia,” Carter said in his July 6, 2023, telephone town hall.

Not exactly. Georgia lawmakers named the right whale as the official state marine mammal in 1985, beating the peach to state symbol status by 10 years. The white-tailed deer is the official state mammal, named so in 2015.

Mary Landers covers Coastal Georgia’s environment for The Current, a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time there writing about health,...