Active: Defending boaters from illegal agency rulemaking and prosecution

Ship collisions along the Eastern Seaboard are responsible for a minuscule number of whale deaths—fewer than one North Atlantic right whale per year from 1970 to 2005. Yet, in 2008, the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) decided this tiny number of collisions justified a regulation that sets a draconian speed limit on the ocean. In doing so, the agency assigned itself the role of the ocean’s traffic cops.

The regulation limits all vessels 65 feet or longer to just 10 knots—an 11.5-mile-per-hour pace that’s barely more than a crawl—in large areas of the Eastern Seaboard from April to November. Violators face a civil fine of up to $10,000 per speeding ticket and possible criminal penalties.

The speed limit creates a disastrous stranglehold on ship traffic, costing the economy more than $100 million annually, but the bigger price may be in human safety. Ten knots is so slow that many vessels—which rely on speed to stay stable in choppy waters—must choose between keeping passengers and crew safe or risking a significant fine. No one should have to make that choice.

Moreover, It was unlawful for NOAA to issue the speed limit. Congress has authorized NOAA to prevent people from killing marine mammals, but that does not give the agency the power to punish anything that could conceivably harm a whale.

The boat owners and captains listed below are among NOAA’s targets. With PLF’s help, they’re fighting the agency’s charges brought under unlawful rules to restore their own rights and the rule of law for all Americans. No animals were harmed in any of these cases—just like in the vast majority of cases of travel on the ocean.

Joseph Urbinati, Jr. lives in Westchester County, NY, where he runs his own construction business. He also owns Michele My Belle, his vessel that’s moored in New York from April to November, and in Florida during the winter months. In September 2023, NOAA issued a citation to Joseph after clocking Michele My Belle slightly over the speed limit three times the previous November. The agency fined Joseph $22,500, never mind that he wasn’t piloting the boat; his hired captain was taking the ship to Florida for the winter and affirmed the speed was necessary because the yacht was unstable any slower than 10 knots. Joseph neither told his captain to exceed the speed limit nor did he know it happened until NOAA fined him. His case is In re Joseph Urbinati.

William Gacioch and Gerald Eubanks live in Sarasota, FL. William owns the vessel, M/V Determination III, while Gerald is an experienced captain. In October 2023, NOAA cited both men for exceeding the 10-knot speed limit twice in December 2022 and fined them $15,000. Gerald was at the helm both times and maintained that the speeds, while no faster than 19 knots, were necessary for control and proper steering. Their case is In re Determination III 130 Westport, LLC, and Gerald L. Eubanks.

The stakes are about to get much higher. In 2022, NOAA proposed dramatically expanding its speed limit rules to much smaller vessels, starting at 35 feet long, while broadening its reach up to three miles from shore and along almost the whole coastline from Massachusetts to Florida. NOAA has indicated that a final rule is due in 2024.

Our constitutional separation of powers is designed to protect individual liberty. When the executive branch steps outside of the powers authorized by Congress and engages in de facto lawmaking, regulated Americans are subjected to arbitrary rules. Congress is accountable to the people, but NOAA bureaucrats are not. Our Constitution requires the people’s elected representatives to make the law.

Represented at no charge by Pacific Legal Foundation, these citizens are fighting back against NOAA’s unchecked power grab to vindicate their rights, hold a powerful federal agency accountable to the rule of law, and restore the proper limits of NOAA authority as established by Congress.

What’s At Stake?

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does not have the power to impose speed limits on the ocean. Congress has only authorized the agency to investigate and prosecute those who hunt or kill marine mammals. The speed limit is an unlawful power grab that endangers human lives.

Case Timeline

July 03, 2024
Respondent's Initial Brief
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration