The federal Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau, and Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc, announced on August 11 that, in order to help reduce or eliminate deaths of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence through collisions or other unintentional contacts with commercial vessels, the government is imposing a temporary mandatory speed reduction for vessels of 20 metres or more in length to a maximum of 10 knots when travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island. These measures are in addition to other measures already taken to reduce the possibility of whales becoming entangled in fishing gear.
“Transport Canada inspectors, with assistance from the Canadian Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services, will enforce this precautionary measure until the whales have migrated from the areas of concern. Failure to comply will result in an Administrative Monetary Penalty of up to $25,000.
Bruce Burrows, President of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, said: “Our shipowner members have already been cooperating with federal officials and reducing speeds as requested, where they can, while travelling through the Laurentian Channel in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“We understand what the government is trying to achieve with the temporary mandatory speed restrictions, as these recent whale deaths are deeply troubling for our members too. We are fully on board with protecting the marine mammals in these waters. We would encourage the government to accelerate their analysis and research to properly understand all the factors that have led to the recent whale deaths. It’s critical that industry and government continue to work closely together to develop solutions based on strong science that both protect marine wildlife and minimize economic impacts.” The speed restrictions could lead to delays of up to seven hours depending on the vessel voyage. Chamber of Marine Commerce shipowners are currently evaluating how this may impact their customers, including deliveries of essential supplies such as groceries and passenger trips to local communities along the North Shore of Quebec.
In an interview with Radio Canada International, Sonia Simard, Director of Legislative and Environmental Affairs with Shipping Federation of Canada said “Container vessels are like your bus, they have a very tight schedule to make. Slowing down to 10 knots would add anywhere between five and eight hours to the vessel’s journey to the Port of Montreal, she said. For bulk carriers, which usually go slower than container ships, the slowdown could add three to five hours to their journey, Simard said. “In navigation time is of the essence. When you look at adding time to a voyage, that means additional costs for shipowners and on the other hand it could have an impact on the overall efficiency of the shipping corridors and the competitiveness of Canada versus other ports.”
As major users of North Atlantic waters, Canadian shipowners have long been engaged in research and other measures to protect marine wildlife and habitat.
“We take this responsibility very seriously,” said Burrows. “The shipping industry reduces speed and alters routes in critical whale habitats, regularly collects important data for scientists and helps test new technology such as the early-warning whale alert system under development by a scientific group being hosted at Dalhousie University.”
Past measures taken in critical habitat such as the Bay of Fundy in 2003 have reduced the threat of ship strikes to North Atlantic right whales by more than 80 per cent.
Ships have also taken voluntary protection measures around Saguenay Fjord and the St. Lawrence Estuary, including reducing their speed in whale feeding grounds and avoiding a sensitive area frequently used by beluga herds composed of females and young. According to Parks Canada, speed reductions between 2013-2016 resulted in nearly a 40 per cent reduction in the risk of ship collisions with whales.
Chamber of Marine Commerce members, including Groupe Desgagnés and CSL Group, have trained their crews on how to spot whales and collect data in the salt waters of the St. Lawrence and Eastern Canada up to the Arctic in partnership with Réseau d’observation de mammifères marins (ROMM).
CSL’s partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has helped scientists study and monitor the behavior of belugas populations in the St. Lawrence Estuary and Gulf through the non-profit Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM). In partnership with the WWF, CSL has also for many years supported research to protect whales and their habitat in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
Historically, right whales were not commonly found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is working with partners to better understand their changing behavior patterns in recent years and to carry out necropsies on all dead whales to see how fish entanglements, ship strikes, food habitat, climate change and underlying health problems could have played a role. The population of right whales rose from an estimated 350 in the late nineties/early 2000s to around 500 today, however, scientists are concerned that their birth