By Mark Cardwell

René Trépanier is all for conservation efforts to help protect the critically-endangered North Atlantic right whale. But he thinks those measures should also be designed with the economic wellbeing of the communities and companies that rely on the same waterways in mind.

“We very much want to protect whales because the abundance of marine wildlife in our waters is a big part of the beauty and attraction of Canada,” said Trépanier, Executive Director of Cruise the St. Lawrence Association, a non-profit group devoted to the development of the cruise industry market across Eastern Canada and New England, on behalf of its nine Quebec port members and various tourism partners. “But we need to find a path between conservation and exploitation.” Trépanier said the economic impacts from the 10-knot speed limit that was imposed over a vast zone in the southern half of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in August underscores that need.

And marine industry stakeholders of all stripes are worried the fallout will continue in the coming years if the federal government doesn’t work with them to find answers and solutions. “It’s too late for this year,” said Trépanier.  “But we absolutely need information about what will happen in 2018 and 2019, because the cruise lines draw up their itineraries two years in advance.” 

His group and some two dozen others, including Canadian Port Authorities, the Shipping Federation of Canada, the Canadian Shipowners Association, Cruise Line International Association, the Green Alliance and even several ship captains with whale-avoidance experience, participate in weekly conference calls on Wednesday mornings with officials and scientists from several federal government ministries. The latter provide updates, information and data on the location and movement of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The mandatory speed limit was introduced by Transport Canada on Aug. 11 following the deaths of 11 of the whales in a five-week period. The whales were part a large herd that moved north this year from their traditional summer feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy. Those deaths – and two more since then – raised international concern and put pressure on Canada to protect the once-plentiful mammals, which now number less than 500 individuals worldwide. Ship strikes are not the only suspected cause of the whale deaths.  Fishing line entanglements and natural causes are also being investigated by TC and Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

However, the “temporary” speed reduction is being credited for helping to stem the unprecedented number of mortalities. The federal government says the limit will remain in force until the whales leave the gulf and migrate south in late October or early November.

Though a voluntary speed reduction was put in place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in late June, when the whales were first spotted there, the mandatory limit caught the cruise ship industry by surprise. The change resulted in delays of up to seven hours for cruise ships transiting the zone. As a result, several cruise lines have cancelled 19 calls to Quebec ports as of Sept. 30. Hardest hit has been Gaspé with 14 cancellations, followed by Baie-Comeau with four and Saguenay with one. Charlottetown, which is nonetheless enjoying a record year for cruise ship visits, has had eight cancellations. Gaspé and Charlottetown are the two ports closest to the speed reduction zone. Gaspé also relies on tenders to ferry cruise ship passengers to and from shore.  That adds to the cost of port visits and makes arrival and departure times critical.

“The speed reduction was just too sudden,” said Trépanier.  “The cruise ship industry can’t turn on a dime.” He noted that cruises to turnaround destinations like Montreal and Quebec City have been mostly unaffected, as ships can skirt the zone to reach or leave those ports and are less constrained by arrival and departure times.

One port’s misery has also proven to be another’s gain. Sept-Iles, for example, received an unscheduled visit from the Queen Mary 2 in mid-September after the legendary Cunard Lines’ vessel cancelled a visit to Gaspé. And Gaspé got four unscheduled trips of its own.

Overall, however, Trépanier said this fall’s cruise season “has been a global loss for the St. Lawrence. There have been 22,000 fewer passenger visits” due to the cancellations.

According to recent industry data, cruise ship passengers to Quebec spend an estimated $140 per person per day in ports. “It’s not the end of the world for us, but no one is happy about cancellations,” said Les Parsons, CEO of the Charlottetown Harbour Authority. According to Parsons, Charlottetown has a record 84 cruise ships with 100,000 passengers scheduled in 2017. The previous record was 70,000 passengers at the island province’s main port. Parsons said the eight cancelled calls were all tendering. “That takes extra time and added cost,” he said.

It’s not just cruise ships however that have been affected by the speed reduction.

Container lines that operate scheduled routes between several ports have been forced to take various measures to make up for the 5- to 8-hour delays that result from sailing through the whale zone.

“Container vessels operate like a bus system with very exact time schedules,” said Sonia Simard, Director of Legislative and Environmental Affairs for the Montreal-based Shipping Federation of Canada.  “The longer transit adds to the time and overall fluidity of the logistics chain.” Like bulk carriers, which lose only 3-4 hours due to the speed restrictions in the zone which some 30-40 ships transit each day, Simard said container vessels can make up for lost time by going faster on open seas and by working overtime or weekends. “That adds to fuel costs and sailing times,” she said.  “But ship operators are used to dealing with unforeseen constraints like weather delays or mechanical issues.  “The key is for them to get that information beforehand so they can work it into their schedules.”

Simard also noted that the marine industry is both eager and accustomed to working within the confines of speed reductions in Canadian waters. In addition to voluntary reductions to protect killer whales near the entrance to the Port of Vancouver, beluga whales at the confluence of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence, and to prevent soil erosion between Sorel and Montreal, she said the industry has participated in two major conservation actions in recent years to help protect right whales in the Bay of Fundy. Those actions include changes in the width and location of the shipping lanes of the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) in 2003, and an IMO-sanctioned and recommended seasonal ‘Area to be Avoided’ (ATBA) for ships of 300 gross tonnage and upwards in the Roseway Basin in 2008. “We have shown in the past that we can take the measures necessary to ensure whales and ships can co-exist,” said Simard.

She added that other measures, including hull and propeller designs to reduce the impact of collision and noise, are also being taken by the marine industry at the international level. Simard said her group and other stakeholders are pushing the federal government to elaborate plans and actions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for 2018 and beyond. Suggested measures include reducing the size of the speed-reduction zone, having observers on board ships like in Alaska, and the use of whale-detecting acoustic buoys like in the waters off Cape Cod. “No one knows if the whales will return to the Gulf of St. Lawrence again next year,” said Simard.  “But we need to be prepared in case they do, and we want to work with government to discuss and elaborate plans.”

In an email to Canadian Sailings, a TC spokesperson said the ministry is continuing to monitor the whales, “and will adjust or remove the zone when possible. Transport Canada and its other federal partners are committed to working with industry to find more permanent solutions, should the situation warrant.”