The Canadian government is implementing a temporary mandatory slowdown for vessels of 20 metres or more in length to try to prevent more 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, are now 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, likely in the fall, said Garneau, noting the borders of the restricted zone could change, depending on the migration patterns.
Vessels that don't comply face a penalty of $6,000 to $25,000.
Marine industries were consulted on the temporary measure in the high-traffic area, which connects Central and Eastern Canada to international shipping markets.
"We found that by and large, there was a willingness," he said.
The mandatory slowdown replaces a voluntary one the government requested last month.
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," Garneau said.
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Ten North Atlantic right whales have died in the gulf since June 7. Two others have washed up dead in the Massachusetts area in recent weeks.
Only about 500 North Atlantic right whales are left in the world, according to fisheries officials.
Preliminary necropsy reports on some of the gulf deaths suggest ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement are possible causes. A final report is expected by mid-September, and will be made public.
"In the meantime, we are taking decisive steps to reduce the risks of other deaths in that area," said Garneau.
Ships currently travel at an average speed of about 15 knots in the area, he said, although some reach speeds of up to 25 knots.
Officials believe 10-knot speed limit will lower the probability of collisions, particularly fatal collisions, said Garneau. Lower boat speeds give whales a better chance of surviving an impact. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. has also imposed a 10-knot restriction, he said.
Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard will enforce the speed limit, said Garneau, vowing to have enough inspectors in place to ensure compliance.
The names of any offending vessels and companies, as well as their fines, will be made public.
The speed restrictions will only remain in place "while necessary," he said. The situation will be assessed "on an ongoing basis," with the help of aerial surveillance.
Garneau could not estimate how much the plan will cost, but a single necropsy can run between $60,000 and $70,000.
Permanent protections needed
The president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund-Canada welcomed the new protection measure calling it an "important step."
But David Miller said permanent, meaningful protections based on scientific data are needed to reverse the decline of the North Atlantic right whale population.
He questions whether a lack of sufficient food or poisoning from ingesting toxic substances in the ocean, for example, are making the whales disoriented and less able to avoid dangerous ships or harmful fishing gear.
And while the government plans to create a marine protected area (MPA) around the Laurentian Channel, where North Atlantic right whales are known to frequent, Miller said the proposed regulations would still allow oil and gas drilling and seismic blasts in 80 per cent of the MPA.
"These activities threaten whales and other wildlife. An oil spill would be even more devastating."
Garneau said he looks forward to working with other government departments, the marine industry, private sector and environmental groups to find more permanent solutions.
Could delay essential deliveries
Garneau acknowledged the slowdown measure will affect marine industries, including fishing, shipping and cruise lines.
"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," he said.
According to the president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, the speed restrictions could lead to delays of up to seven hours.
'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.' - Bruce Burrows, Chamber of Marine Commerce
"Chamber of Marine Commerce ship owners 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," Bruce Burrows said in a statement.
It's critical the government continue to work closely with the industry to develop science-based solutions that both protect marine wildlife and minimize economic impacts, he said.
A couple of shipping companies contacted by CBC news declined to comment on the mandatory slowdown
Michael Torossian, a partner at Tormar, a Montreal-based shipping agency that co-ordinates activities of vessels calling at Canadian ports, said his company is prepared to deal with the delays.
About 60 per cent of Tormar's business goes through the Gulf of St. Lawrence and several vessels are scheduled to enter the area this week, he said.
"We have vessels that transit obviously at 11, 12, 13, 14 knots, depending on the speed that the captain's comfortable and what's agreed upon with the owners previously to transit," said Torosssian.
"So they will adjust their speed, which will cause delays, but the wildlife and animals take priority. So the shipping industry does realize that, and they'll adjust accordingly."
The cruise line Holland America said it will lower the speed of its two ships. Each carries more than 1,200 passengers through the whale zone on a weekly basis.
Those ships currently go 17 to 18 knots at night through the now 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 prior to the government's announcement.
"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."
Aerial surveillance in recent weeks indicates there are currently between 80 and 100 North Atlantic right whales in the gulf, which is very unusual — about five times more than ever before, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc told reporters.
Traditionally, their migration ends in the Bay of Fundy.
Scientists have suggested climate change may have reduced their food supplies in other areas, forcing them to seek out new sources.
'Canadians and Americans and other citizens across the world expect Canada to take robust and proper steps to protect this species and that's what we're doing today and will continue to do.' - Dominic LeBlanc, fisheries minister
The whales are expected to migrate south, out of the gulf, in September or October, said LeBlanc.
"Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds … probably in the thousands" of ships "come close to or through the affected zone" every year, he said.
Marine mammal experts called on the government to take immediate steps to prevent further deaths.
"Canadians and Americans and other citizens across the world expect Canada to take robust and proper steps to protect this species and that's what we're doing today and will continue to do," LeBlanc said.
Fisheries changes being considered
Future fisheries decisions in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence will take the presence of North Atlantic right whales into account, said LeBlanc.
Certain parts of certain zones could be closed, depending on migration pattens, some seasons could be adjusted and certain types of gear could change, he said, citing less rope or rope that stays vertical in the water instead of floating on the surface as possible examples.
"Every indication we have is that the fishing industry wants to collaborate in any and all of these measures that will help reduce the injury or death of these whales because they understand how serious it is, both in terms of public opinion in Canada and around the world, but in terms of their ability to access, for example, the U.S. market."
The suspension of rescue operations to disentangle North Atlantic right whales caught in fishing gear will remain in place until further notice, he said.
That measure was implemented last month, two days after the death of Joe Howlett, a 59-year-old fisherman from Campobello Island, N.B., during a rescue near Shippagan.
"It's important we investigate thoroughly and completely the events of that sad day so that rescue activities can proceed in the safest and most effective manner for everyone involved," LeBlanc said.
He thanked his staff and coast guard crews, conservation officers and scientists who have been working "literally around the clock for over two months" with other experts from around the world to ensure appropriate protection measures are put in place.