A right whale swims in the ocean, entangled in fishing gear.

Snow Cone (#3560) entangled in fishing gear, sighted off the coast of Georgia with her second calf in December 2021. Her first known calf died from a vessel strike off the coast of New Jersey in June 2020.

Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources via National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Boat operators on Georgia's coast are upset about a proposed rule change designed to protect highly endangered right whales.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is taking public comments about a boat speed limit.

Currently, boats more than 65 feet long have to slow to 10 knots, about 11 miles per hour, during the whales' winter calving season.

The proposal would apply the speed limit to boats more than 35 feet long, affecting many more business and recreational boaters.

Savannah charter boat operator Judy Helmey said her company has been fishing and avoiding whales for 74 years.

"It would literally stop offshore fishing for us," she said. "Trying to close down the ocean? Of all the other things we're having to deal with, now this!"

Helmey said that a trip out to the snapper banks, 50 miles offshore, that normally takes two hours, under the rule, would take four hours, each way.

With two hours of fishing, that would make a 10-hour day. "And that's not going to go over very well," she said.

Data suggests there are fewer than 100 reproductively active female right whales, and only about 350 all together, with vessel strikes a leading threat.

A NOAA official says the proposed speed limit is part of an effort, in collaboration with stakeholders, to conserve the North Atlantic right whale population.

"Despite the many challenges we face, including climate change, we must find solutions to mitigate the threats to marine mammals while supporting the livelihoods and economies of our fishing communities who put healthy food on our tables," said Janet Coit, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries.

The agency is taking public comments on the rule change through September.