The cruise ship industry says the government needs to give the sector more notice if it wants to reduce cancellations of ports of call because of speed limit restrictions in place to protect right whales. 

In light of mounting North Atlantic right whale deaths this year, Transport Canada imposed a 10-knot limit on vessels 20 metres or more in length. 

As a result, the cruise ship industry was forced to cancel nearly a dozen stops in Charlottetown.

About a third of ships due to dock at the port in Gaspé cancelled stops this summer, resulting in roughly 12,000 fewer tourists in the coastal town, at an estimated economic cost of $2.5 million

"Gaspé was probably the port that was most severely affected by that, which is really unfortunate because it's a small community and gets a tremendous boost from having a ship call there," said Greg Wirtz, president of the branch of Cruise Lines International Association that represents cruise lines operating in Canada and the northwestern U.S.

Deep Trouble right whales

Right whales typically migrate to coastal waters off of Florida and Georgia but a few may stick around Canadian waters year-round. (Center for Coastal Studies)

"So when multiple ship calls get missed, it does have a big negative impact for the community." 

This year, at least 16 right whales have died in waters off the east coast of Canada and the United States — more than three per cent of the species.

Economic consequences

Wirtz said the industry "completely respects" the slowdowns as a way to protect right whales, but there are unavoidable repercussions.

He said the industry makes itineraries at least two years in advance. That means even if the government extends the speed restrictions through next summer and notifies the industry now, it's too late to adjust itineraries without cancelling some stops. 

"It inevitably would result in fewer port calls in the region," said Wirtz. 

Right Whale Deaths 20170626

This year, at least 16 right whales have died in waters off the east coast of Canada and the United States — that's more than three per cent of the species dead within a few months. (HO-Department of Fisheries and Oceans/Canadian Press)

In a statement, Transport Canada said the speed limit will remain in effect "until the whales have migrated away from the area of concern."

Right whales typically migrate to coastal waters off Florida and Georgia, but some may stick around Canadian waters year-round.

A few vessels have been fined $6,000 for breaking the 10-knot rule.

Wirtz said the industry is trying to anticipate what rules might be in place in the future.

"But we don't know, as an industry, what the Government of Canada intends to do for next year," he said. 

"The industry is trying to work very closely with DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and Transport Canada to maximize the opportunity for whale protection and do it in a smart way that also keeps commerce moving."

'All options are on the table' to save whales

Transport Canada has not outlined a specific plan for speed restrictions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence next summer.

"The department will ensure any new measures to protect the marine environment are well communicated to the marine industry and the public before being implemented," the department said in an emailed statement.

Transport Canada added that "all options are on the table."

It's a sentiment shared by Catherine Blewett, deputy minister of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, at a recent meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale consortium.

"All options are on the table when it comes to protecting these creatures," she said.

On Thursday, scientists, government and people who make their living on the water will gather in Moncton, N.B., to discuss actions to stop more right whale deaths.