Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc says he was "surprised" by the more than 500 reported speed limit violations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence last year and questions whether penalties should be stiffer to better protect North Atlantic right whales this year.

"This is my own view, that a $6,000 fine may not represent an adequate sanction, it may not represent a sufficient deterrent," said LeBlanc.

He plans to work with Transport Canada Minister Marc Garneau over the coming months, he said, to ensure the sanctions imposed are "proportionate to the offence that we find speeding in this zone represents.

"So if we say that it's a very serious offence to disrespect the speed restriction, I want to make sure that the sanction that's available is proportionate to the seriousness of the offence."

LeBlanc made the comments in Moncton Tuesday after announcing new rules for the snow crab fishery aimed at reducing the risk of the endangered whales becoming entangled in fishing gear in the southern part of the gulf.

Garneau is in Israel and was unavailable to comment Wednesday, Transport Canada officials said.

At least 17 North Atlantic right whales died in Canadian and U.S. waters last year. That's more than three per cent of the estimated global population of the endangered species.

North Atlantic right whale, Miscou Island

This North Atlantic right whale, a two-year-old female, was found dead on Sept. 15. Of the estimated 450 to 500 whales left in the world, only about 100 are breeding females. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Necropsies on seven of the carcasses determined four whales died of blunt force trauma from collisions with ships, while the other three likely died from entanglements in fishing gear.

Last August, Transport Canada imposed a mandatory 10-knot speed limit in the western part of the gulf for vessels measuring 20 metres or more in length to help reduce the risk of whale strikes and to improve the chances of survival for any whales struck.

Violations were reported for 542 ship transits between Aug. 11 and Jan. 11, when the restriction was lifted because officials wanted to ensure the manoeuvrability of ships in winter conditions and no whales sightings had been reported in weeks.

14 fines issued

As of Wednesday, only 14 of the 542 cases had resulted in a fine — all of them a minimum of $6,000.

The maximum fine is $25,000.

Transport Canada released the speeds of two of the fined vessels on Wednesday because they have now paid their fines.

The car/passenger ferry CTMA Vacancier was fined for travelling 11.4 knots and the bulk carrier Federal Cardinal was fined for travelling 10.9 knots, officials said.

The alleged speed of the container ship Mississauga Express is the only one that hasn't been released because it is still within the 30-day appeal period.

The previously released speeds of the 11 other fined vessels ranged from 10.5 knots to 13.3 knots.

The dates of the 14 recorded infractions were also released by Transport Canada on Wednesday. They stretched between Aug. 21 and Dec. 4.

Annie Joannette, a senior communications adviser for the federal department, said no vessel had been fined a second time, "which does suggest that the penalty had an effect."

Thirty-four cases are still under review and 44 are pending review through the "compliance verification process," another department spokeswoman, Julie Leroux, had said.

The remaining 450 cases were closed due to "insufficient evidence."

Sir William Alexander

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

LeBlanc told reporters Transport Canada will "most likely" impose a speed limit again before April, when scientists predict North Atlantic right whales will return to the gulf.

He described speed restrictions as "one of the most effective measures" to protect the whales.

"I think it would be a mistake to assume that … our government won't use that as one of a number of measures," said LeBlanc.

"But it will be based on scientific advice in terms of the presence of the whales, the appropriate zone that should be put in place and the appropriate speed limit."

When it comes to penalties, "I don't want to pretend that there's an easy and quick fix," said LeBlanc.

The current fines are set out under the Canada Shipping Act, he said.

"But I'm going to work with my colleague [Transport Canada Minister] Marc Garneau to ensure that we have the best possible deterrent measures in place."

USE THIS ONE: whale graphic, speed restriction zone, Gulf of St. Lawrence

Ships that violated the 10-knot speed limit in the restricted zone were subject to fines of between $6,000 and $25,000, depending on the speed and number of infractions. (CBC)

About 4,711 vessel transits occurred in the speed restriction zone — from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island — during the five months the 10-knot limit was in place, said Leroux.

Vessels measuring 20 metres or more would normally travel at around 18 knots.

The alleged violations are based on data collected in real-time by the Canadian Coast Guard through the Automated Identification System.

"Most of these cases involved a speed slightly higher than 10 knots for a very short duration," said Leroux, noting the monitoring system used recorded any speed above the limit — even if the speed was only 0.1 knots over for less than a minute.

Such infractions are "often" caused by environmental factors, such as wind, waves and currents, or the recording instruments being affected by the ship rolling and pitching, "rather than an actual non-compliance," she said.

The approximate breakdown of the types of ships accused of breaking the speed limit, she said, include:

  • General cargo, 182.
  • Bulk carrier, 115.
  • Tanker, 110.
  • Passenger, 49.
  • Fishing, 24.
  • Container, 22.
  • Others, 40.

The changes for the snow crab fishery announced Tuesday include reducing the amount of rope floating on the surface, using colour-coded rope and numbered buoys to identify where the gear originated, and mandatory reporting of all lost gear.

There are only an estimated 450 to 500 North Atlantic right whales left in the world — and only about 100 of them are reproducing females, according to experts.