Whale expert lauds ships that complied with speed limit in Gulf of St. Lawrence

As Transport Canada investigates the final 78 alleged violations of a speed limit imposed last summer to protect North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and reviews the fines, one whale expert is lauding mariners for their efforts to comply.

Moira Brown says a 'good per centage' abided by speed restriction to protect North Atlantic right whales

Moira Brown, a senor scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute and New England Aquarium, says speed restrictions have proven to be an effective whale-protecting measure in other areas, such as the Bay of Fundy. (CBC)

As Transport Canada investigates the final 78 alleged violations of a speed limit imposed last summer to protect North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and reviews the fines, one whale expert is lauding mariners for their efforts to comply.

Moira Brown, a researcher with the Canadian Whale Institute on Campobello Island and with the New England Aquarium in Boston, said "a good percentage" of vessels abided by the temporary mandatory slowdown, which created "a great burden" for them.

"And I think the ones that did comply definitely deserve a lot of credit because they're the ones that are making a difference," she said.

On Aug. 11, Transport Canada ordered all vessels 20 metres or longer to restrict their speed to 10 knots (about 18.5 kilometres an hour in the western part of the gulf, from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island.

Ships that size would normally travel at about 18 knots. Smaller vessels were asked to voluntarily comply.

Brown described the speed restriction as a "very forceful measure," prompted by the alarming number of North Atlantic right whale deaths last year.

Seventeen North Atlantic right whales were found dead last year and scientists believe human activity, including shipping and fishing, was the primary cause. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

At least 17 of the endangered whales were found dead — 12 in Canadian  waters and five in U.S. waters. Necropsies on seven of them showed four died of blunt force trauma from collisions with ships, while the other three appeared to have died from being entangled in fishing gear.

Last week, another dead North Atlantic right whale was found off the coast of Virginia, marking the first death this year.

An estimated 450 North Atlantic right whales are left in the world.

Studies have shown lower speeds reduce the risk of ships colliding with whales and, if strikes do occur, the severity of the injuries, said Brown.

The risk of a lethal vessel strike if a vessel is going 10 knots is about 30 per cent — and it goes up from there, she said.

Many under 11 knots

Fines for violating the 10-knot speed limit currently range from $6,000 to $25,000 under the Canada Shipping Act. (CBC)

Speed violations were reported for 542 of about 4,710 trips by ships through the gulf between Aug. 11 and Jan. 11, when the restriction was lifted, federal officials have said.

To date, 450 cases have been closed because of insufficient evidence.

Fourteen vessels have each been fined $6,000 for speeding. The speeds in 13 of those cases ranged from 10.5 knots to 13.3 knots. The alleged speed in the 14th case has not been released because it is still within the appeal period.

Brown said many of the offenders were less than one knot over the limit.

"These are really big ships" that take time to slow down, she said. The vessels included a Canadian Coast Guard ship, cruise ships, cargo ships and an oil tanker.

"And there's uncertainties around how speed is measured. Just like when we get stopped for speeding on the highways, you know, there's uncertainties around calibration."

'Can we do better? Yes'

A Shipping Federation of Canada spokeswoman also commended members for their "very good level of compliance," given the difficulties of navigating large vessels.

"It's certainly not an exact science," said Sonia Simard, director of legislative and environmental affairs.

"Can we do better? Yes … Can we work towards more? Certainly.

We will continue to work with those impacted by the slowdown to find solutions that mitigate risks to the North Atlantic right whale while allowing the industry to operate efficiently.- Julie Leroux , Transport Canada

Simard said the industry already  had experience with speed restrictions to protect whales in the Bay of Fundy and the Roseway Basin, off southwestern Nova Scotia.

The federal government was also grateful to the shipping industry and operators, said Transport Canada spokeswoman Julie Leroux.

"We will continue to work with those impacted by the slowdown to find solutions that mitigate risks to the North Atlantic right whale while allowing the industry to operate efficiently."

Speeds affected by elements

The Canadian Coast Guard's own ship, Sir William Alexander, was fined $6,000 for reaching speeds of 12.9 knots. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

Most of the 542 alleged speed violations documented by the Canadian Coast Guard's marine communications and traffic services were only "slightly higher" than the limit and for a "very short duration," said Leroux.

The coast guard uses an automated identification system to track vessels. Environmental conditions, such as wind, waves and currents, can affect a ship's speed and must be taken into account in the compliance verification process, said Leroux.

The instruments that record the speed of the ship may also be affected by external factors, such as the ship movement, rolling and pitching, she said.

"Therefore, a reported speed slightly above 10 knots for a short time is often caused by these factors rather than an actual non-compliance with the speed limit."

Investigators look for "sustained" periods of transit above the speed limit, said Jane Weldon, director of marine safety and security.

"So we have vessels that will have gone from 10 knots to 10.5 knots and then back to 10 knots in the space of 20 or 30 seconds, so they didn't actually increase the speed," she said.

"It's just a data error because the wind moved the GPS device around or the wave moved the ship sideways and that causes the GPS to give an erroneous reading."

Investigators make 'judgment call'

There is no set threshold for what's considered a "sustained" period, said Weldon. Inspectors made "a judgment call," she said.

"They have to look at the data, look at the ocean conditions and make a decision."

Investigators will also consider any explanations offered, said Weldon.

"If, in the vessel captain's judgment, the vessel needs to exceed the speed to be safe, our investigator will consider the rational provided.

"However, there are, shall I say, very limited reasons in which that would be the case."

For example, if a captain argues he couldn't slow down because his passengers would have been more likely to get seasick, "that is not an adequate reason," Weldon said.

On the other hand, a "major storm" and gale conditions could make it impossible to maintain 10 knots, she said.

No statute of limitations

Ships found to have exceeded the limit more than once during a transit, for extended periods each time and by large amounts will only be charged once, said Weldon.

Thirty-four cases are still under review and 44 are pending review. Weldon could not estimate how long they might take to complete because some of the vessels are no longer in Canadian waters.

Investigators need access to the captains and the ship logs to complete their investigations, she said, "so if the vessel re-enters Canadian waters, the case will be finished."

There is no statute of limitations, said Weldon.

All over the map

"Typically, these are foreign cargo vessels and they tend to be on trips around the world, in and out of different ports, and typically they'll end up back in Canada eventually," she said.

It could be a week, it could be six months, "it could be never."

The speed restriction was lifted Jan. 11 to ensure ships could maintain manoeuvrability in winter conditions and because no North Atlantic right whales had been seen in the gulf for weeks.

The government will likely impose a speed limit again before April, when scientists predict North Atlantic right whales will return to the gulf, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc has said.