"Devastating" Speed Restriction Proposal Gains Momentum In D.C., Prompting Alarm On Nantucket

JohnCarl McGrady •

The Steamship Authority's M/V Iyanough, outbound from Nantucket. NantucketStock.com

A proposed rule that would dramatically limit high-speed boat travel off the East Coast of the United States is picking up momentum in Washington D.C., spurring increased concern from local officials that the regulation could destroy the local economy and endanger essential services to the island. The speed restriction being considered is intended to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

“This could be quite serious for Nantucket,” Town Manager Libby Gibson said at Wednesday’s Select Board meeting. “Early on, when this was proposed, I think most people here thought it was not anything to be overly concerned about because it wouldn’t happen because it was going to be so clearly devastating for the island. But it seems as though it might be gaining some momentum, so we’re going to need to get active on it.”

The rule, proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to protect the endangered North Atlantic Right whale, would restrict most vessels over 35 feet to traveling at a maximum of 10 knots (about 11.5mph) from November 1st to May 30th. This would prevent all high-speed boat travel to and from Nantucket during that time, likely forcing the closure of Hy-Line Cruises and greatly decreasing the island’s ability to access needed goods and services from the mainland. Under the new regulation, even slow-speed boats would take longer to cross the sound.

“It would have a devastating impact on our ability to service the island,” Steamship Authority General Manager Bob Davis said.

Several local boards, including the Select Board and the Nantucket Planning and Economic Development Commission, have voted unanimously to express their disapproval and seek an audience with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is currently reviewing the proposed rule. The Steamship Authority is also seeking an audience, and Gibson indicated at Wednesday’s Select Board meeting that the town will reach out to various organizations on the Cape and Islands, including the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce, for their support.

“It’s important that the town get behind a consistent and single-minded approach to this,” Gibson said. “We definitely want to get different parties involved.”

The regulation is designed to protect the North Atlantic right whale, which has been the subject of much debate surrounding the development of offshore wind turbines in the region. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believes the rule is necessary to reduce lethal vessel strikes on right whales and help the recovery of the species. While the species is known to frequent nearby areas, including Cape Cod Bay and areas southeast of the island, not a single right whale has been spotted in Nantucket Sound or Vineyard Sound by the crews of the Steamship Authority or Hy-Line Cruises in decades.

“We’re not opposed to preserving the right whales, it’s just that in the last 22 years we have run over half a million trips and never once has our captain sighted a right whale,” Davis said. “There are no sightings noted in Nantucket or Vineyard Sound.”

In addition to the economic repercussions, Davis worries that the speed limits could make it difficult for the Steamship Authority to provide “the necessities of life” such as food, fuel, and medical supplies. There could also be further negative effects of the legislation. For instance, mainland workers who rely on the ferries to commute to work on the island would be largely unable to do so, and restricting high-speed ferry travel to and from Nantucket would essentially prevent Nantucket High School sports teams from competing with other high schools from around the state.

“That shuts down sports on Nantucket,” said Nat Lowell, the Nantucket’s representative on the Steamship Authority’s Port Council, of the speed restriction.

Noaa speed restriction map 2024 update

When the proposed regulation was originally announced, the Steamship Authority submitted a letter to NOAA arguing Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard Sound should be exempted. The letter, buried in over 90,000 comments, went unheeded, and the rule has proceeded to the OMB, the final stage in the federal review process.

“They are going ahead with this,” Davis said.

The OMB review process allows concerned parties to apply for half-hour-long slots to present their case, an avenue the Steamship Authority and multiple Town boards are pursuing. The different local groups aim to collaborate on their presentations to ensure they use their time as effectively as possible and present a unified front.

Davis emphasized that the Steamship Authority is not seeking to block the rule entirely.

“Basically, what we’re seeking is to have Nantucket and Vineyard Sound exempt from this,” he said. “There are other areas along the East Coast that are exempt. Long Island Sound is exempt, for instance, so why not Nantucket Sound?”

While the regulation would not usually apply during the summer, it could still have significant effects on the summer tourist industry. Even during the summer months, if there is a sighting of a right whale, all high-speed boat travel within a designated distance from the sighting will have to pause for an extended period—and the zone covered by the restriction is large. Davis said that if a right whale is sighted in the Cape Cod Bay, the zone would extend “over the Cape and halfway to Nantucket.”

As part of the review process, the OMB assigns a projected economic cost to proposed regulations. The current estimated cost for the entire regulation is under $50 million, but Davis believes that is a significant underestimate.

“We think the economic impact just to this area could be over $100 million,” he said.

Speaking to the Current when the regulations were first proposed in in 2022, Hy-Line president Murray Scudder gave an even higher estimated total cost of the proposed regulation: $40 billion.

Loading Ad
Loading Ad
Loading Ad

Current News