Cruise ship cancellations deal economic blow to Gaspé, Sept-Îles

Another spate of cruise ship stops to Quebec’s east coast have been cancelled despite efforts from Quebec tourist operators to soften their concerns over a nautical speed limit meant to protect the right whale.

Efforts to save endangered right whale continues to knock cruise ships off course

Cruise lines have cancelled six visits to Sept-Îles so far this year due to a speed limit meant to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale. (Evelyne Côté/Radio-Canada)

Cruise ship companies have cancelled another dozen stops to Quebec ports of call, despite efforts by tourist operators in the region to allay their concerns about the reduced nautical speed limit meant to protect the right whale.

Last year, about a third of the ships that were set  to dock at the port in Gaspé cancelled planned visits after Transport Canada announced all ships would have to slow down to 10 knots when travelling through the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The measures were meant to prevent ships from colliding with the endangered North Atlantic right whale after 18 whales, or about four per cent of the remaining population, were found dead last year.

This year, eastern Quebec's tourism industry thought it had worked out a compromise with regulators that would allow the cruise stops to resume.

Transport Canada agreed to change the rules it had imposed on all vessels 20 metres or longer travelling on the western side of the Gulf of St. Lawrence whenever the right whales are present.

Despite that, three subsidiaries of Norwegian Cruise Lines, including Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas cruises, have cancelled six stops planned for Sept-Îles and six planned for Gaspé.

At least 18 North Atlantic right whales died last year, either due to collisions with boats or entanglements with fishing lines. The carcass of this small female was found on Miscou Island, NB. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"Losing 12 calls altogether — that's something for us as a destination," said René Trépanier, the executive director of Cruise the Saint Lawrence, an organization that promotes the ports on the St. Lawrence as cruise ship destinations.

"You must feel my frustration with what the cruise lines have done," said Trépanier. "We thought we had a very good plan for 2018, but even though we have it, they have cancelled, and without taking the time to discuss [the matter] with us."

The economic impact will be felt in a small port of call like Sept-Îles, where the cancellation of the cruise ship visits will cut the number of expected visitors nearly in half, from 15,000 to 8,000 tourists, passengers and crew.

"It was supposed to be a record year for us this year," said Marie-Ève Duguay, the executive director of Destination Sept-Îles Nakauinanu, which promotes tourism in the region.

Compromise for ships and whales

Under the new rules, Transport Canada will no longer require a 10-knot speed limit across the board.

Instead, the main channels where ships and boats tend to travel have been divided into four zones.  A ship must travel at or under the 10-knot limit in one zone if a right whale has been spotted there within the previous 15 days.

It will not face a speed limit in the other zones, unless a right whale has been spotted nearby.

This year, Transport Canada has divided navigation channels into four zones, ordering ships to travel no faster than 10 knots if right whales have been spotted in a zone within the previous 15 days. (Transport Canada)

Trépanier had believed this would not impede cruise lines, especially since no right whales at all were seen in the navigation channels last year.

"If only one sector is closed, that means a delay of about two hours for a cruise line, which is not a big deal," he said.

However, Trépanier said, large cruise lines, which manage itineraries throughout the world, set their schedules two  years in advance, leaving them with little flexibility to add ports of call.

Trépanier and Duguay said they believe ships will return once the cruise lines adjust to the changes.

Back to Sept-Îles in 2020?

Oceania Cruises operates four of the six stops that were cancelled in Sept-Îles. It told CBC in a written statement that it acted based on how much time it would take to sail between destinations at the reduced speed.

"These itineraries had already been planned, published, and booked by guests prior to the restrictions being implemented," wrote Tim Rubacky, Oceania Cruise's head of public relations.

The executive director of Destination Sept-Îles Nakauinanu, Marie-Ève Duguay, says the city was set to receive a record number of cruise ship visitors before the latest flurry of cancellations. (Katy Larouche/Radio-Canada)

He said the company hopes to reinstate calls at Sept-Îles in 2020.

Duguay said Sept-Îles will still have a good season, even if it doesn't break a record.

"This year, even with the six cancellations, that looks like a regular season for us. Eight thousand people is already a very good number," she said.


  • This story was updated to reflect that zones will be subject to a speed limit if a right whale has been spotted in an adjoining area.
    May 10, 2018 12:26 PM ET

With files from Cassie Williams, Kim Garritty and Katy Larouche


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