The Canadian government is implementing a temporary mandatory slowdown for vessels of 20 metres or more in length to address the deaths of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Vessels travelling in the western part of the Gulf, from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island, will be required to reduce their speed to 10 knots, Minister of Transport Marc Garneau announced Friday at a news conference at the Pointe-du-Chêne Wharf in southeastern New Brunswick.
The slowdown takes effect immediately and will remain in place until the endangered whales migrate out of the areas of concern, said Garneau.
Officials believe 10 knots will lower the probabibility of collisions, particularly fatal collisions, he said.
The situation will be assessed “on an ongoing basis,” with the help of aerial surveillance, said Garneau.
The government will also ask ships under 20 metres in length to voluntarily slow down in the relevant area.
“We have a responsibility to ensure our wildlife and precious marine resources are protected for future generations.”
The measure will be enforced by Transport Canada inspectors and the Canadian Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services.
Vessels that don’t comply face an administrative monetary penalty of $6,000 to $25,000.
Ten North Atlantic right whales have died in the gulf since June 7. Two others have washed up dead in the Masshachusetts area in recent weeks.
Preliminary necropsy reports on some of the gulf deaths suggest ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement are possible causes.
Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Dominic LeBlanc said he expects a final report by mid-September, and it will be made public.
Only about 500 North Atlantic right whales are left in the world, according to fisheries officials.
Marine mammal experts have called on the government to take immediate steps to prevent further deaths.
Aerial suveillance indicates there are currently up to 100 North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf, which is very unusual, said LeBlanc. They are expected to migrate south, out of the Gulf, in September or October, he said.
“Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds … probably in the thousands” of ships “come close to or through the affected zone,” said LeBlanc.
Garneau acknowledged the slowdown will affect industry.
“But we believe that this impact is something that can be accepted by the industry because it’s something that’s for a very important cause,” the protection of the endangered species, he said.
Holland America, a cruise line that has two ships of more than 1,200 passengers, passes through the whale zone on a weekly basis.
Automatic Identification System (AIS) data show those ships go 17 to 18 knots at night through the soon-to-be mandatory 10-knot zone.
“Holland America Line has a comprehensive Whale Strike Avoidance program in place and we take our responsibility to be good stewards of the marine environment very seriously,” the company said in an emailed statement to CBC News.
“Our ships have clear guidelines on how to operate if whales are sighted nearby, which include altering course, reducing speed as required and adding additional lookouts in sensitive areas.”
Considering other options
LeBlanc said Ottawa will continue to consider all options to help prevent future whale deaths.
Last week, LeBlanc pledged the federal government would do whatever it takes to prevent further deaths of the “iconic animals” in the busy gulf, which connects central and Eastern Canada to international shipping markets.
“Every option to protect right whales is on the table,” the minister had said, citing changes to shipping lanes, increased aerial surveillance, remote-controlled acoustic equipment, or changes to fishing gear among the possibilities.
LeBlanc has said the two federal departments are working closely together and with some of the best scientists in the world to address the “serious and troubling situation” that poses a threat to Canada’s global reputation.
Some steps already taken by Fisheries and Oceans Canada have included closing the snow crab fishery early in some parts of the gulf and asking boats to voluntarily slow down along the Laurentian Channel in shipping lanes between the Magdalen Islands and the Gaspé Peninsula. Lower boat speeds give whales a better chance of surviving an impact.
The department has also asked commercial fishermen to watch for whales and report any sightings.