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Biden administration considers $20,000 fine, prison for boaters who exceed 11.5 mph in Florida Gulf

Several legal and industry groups say the new speed limit exceeds the authority of the federal agency.

Published: July 7, 2023 11:40pm

Updated: July 10, 2023 2:03pm

President Joe Biden’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is moving a step closer to imposing a 10-knot speed limit for boats in the Florida waters of the Gulf of Mexico, with violations potentially resulting in a felony charge punishable by a $20,000 fine and up to one year in prison.

The agency closed a public comment period Thursday on a petition seeking to impose the limit.

The petition argues the speed limit will protect the endangered Rice’s whale and was submitted by a coalition of six environmental groups to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 2021, invoking the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The petition calls for "mandating that all boats, no matter how small, traveling in the Florida Gulf obey a 10-knot speed limit," the public interest law firm Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF) stated in a public rebuke of the petition.

Ten knots is equivalent to 11.5 miles per hour on land. For comparison, sailboats typically cruise at a speed of 8 knots, according to sailboat lifestyle writer Daniel Wade. 

Now, NMFS will decide "whether to accept the petition and proceed with the suggested rulemaking," according to the Federal Register.

But on Thursday, the same day as the deadline for petition comments, SLF submitted its formal comment objecting to the proposal, saying it’s "fully prepared" to take action against it.

On top of it being "arguably illegal and unconstitutional," SLF also said the petition provides no sufficient evidence that the rule would protect the whales at all.

"The coalition cannot show that a single boat strike on Rice’s whales in the Florida gulf was ever attributable to a boat of a recreational size, and NMFS cannot deduce it based on the evidence presented," the legal group wrote in its opposition statement. "Over the last two decades, the coalition cites only two instances where Rice’s whales had evidence of a strike from a boat of any size, which isn’t the same as saying that it ever happened at all."

Nonetheless, violations of the rule would subject individuals to "up to a year of imprisonment and a fine of $20,000," according to the legal foundation.

Just the News CEO John Solomon interviewed SLF’s litigation director, Braden Bocek, who noted that the NMFS lost a lawsuit in June over similar regulatory efforts.

According to Bocek, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the agency "didn't have the power" to enforce the rule "and certainly couldn't just draw these worst-case scenario assumptions" to try and do so, which he said is "exactly what's going on" with the boating dispute.

According to, the court accused the agency of using "distorted science" to force the regulation.

Regarding the boating petition, Bocek said it would essentially turn law-abiding citizens into criminals "overnight."

"This is a remarkable proposal," Bocek said in the interview. Ten knots "is just above running speed on all boats of all sizes across the Florida Gulf."

In response to a separate NMFS push for a 10-knot speed limit on vessels over 35-feet long to protect the endangered Right whale species, Boat Owners Association president Chris Edmonston told Fox News that 10-knots is a dangerously slow speed for most boats, as they can't even manage to cut through waves at that speed. 

Pilot boat captain Trey Thompson also said in the article that drastically slow speeds could injure passengers due to the boat rolling, and also claimed some boats "can’t maintain steerage" at 10 knots. "If you’re going that speed," he added, "you’re going to [run] aground."

The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) also opposed the limit, saying it would cost thousands of jobs and threaten the $170 billion industry.

Bocek said such regulatory pushes are "all similar in the sense that they just demand these major, major actions be taken in the name of protecting the environment" while failing to consider the economic and lifestyle damages to Americans.

"It's all done so under this sort of fiction that we stand at the brink, and if we don't do absolutely everything at our disposal… the environment is at this tipping point," he stated.

Just the News contacted the six groups responsible for the petition for comment. The New England Aquarium spokesperson, Pam Snyder, referred Just the News to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who she said is the leader of the petition.

NRDC did not respond to Just the News' inquiry.

Another organization who joined the petition, Healthy Gulf, told Just the News the speed limit proposal is a "reasonable" request.

Healthy Gulf said it supports speed restrictions and other reasonable measures in parts of the Gulf of Mexico to protect the endangered Rice’s whale from vessel strikes and noise pollution.

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