New Brunswick

Majority of ships ignoring voluntary slowdown in Cabot Strait

Asking nicely didn't work, so an environmental group wants Transport Canada to force ships to slow down in the Cabot Strait. Oceana Canada said the majority of ships are ignoring the voluntary slowdown that was first announced in February. 

Ship speed poses a real threat for right whales: environmental group

By the time this right whale was a year old, he was nicknamed Wolverine for the propeller scars on his back. A year ago, his body was discovered in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and towed to Miscou Island for a necropsy. (Nick Hawkins/Marine Animal Response Society)

Asking nicely didn't work, so an environmental group wants Transport Canada to force ships to slow down in the Cabot Strait.

Oceana Canada said the majority of ships are ignoring the voluntary slowdown that was first announced in February

As part of an effort to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, Transport Canada asked vessels over 13 metres to voluntarily reduce their speeds to 10 knots in a portion of the Cabot Strait between April 28 and June 15, and Oct. 1 and Nov. 15 — times of year when the right whales are believed to travel through the area.

But a review of ship speeds revealed that 72 per cent of vessels ignored the slowdown between May 19 and 25, said Kim Elmslie, who leads the right whale campaign for Oceana Canada. 

Elmslie said the speed of a vessel is critical to the survival of right whales.

"When a right whale is struck by a vessel, it has a greater chance of surviving, the slower that vessel is going. So if it's going 10 knots or slower, you know, the chances of surviving ... is about 86 per cent," she said.

"If a vessel is going at 20 knots, it's about a zero per cent chance."

This right whale shows the damage that can be inflicted by a ship's propeller. (Monica Zani/New England Aquarium)

But Elmslie knows "speed is money" in the shipping industry. No one wants to be going slower than their competitors — especially if speed limits are voluntary. 

"So if you are trying to do the right thing, and you're slowing down to 10 knots, it almost puts you at a bit of a disadvantage. So, by making it mandatory for everybody, it just levels the playing field."

Ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement are the leading causes of death for North Atlantic right whales. 

This illustration shows the size of a right whale compared to a cargo ship. (Oceana Canada)

There are only about 400 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and fewer than 100 breeding females.

Elmslie said the mortality rate for North Atlantic right whales exceeds the birthrate. 

"We must do everything we can to protect all right whales and prevent the extinction of this species," said Elmslie. "Vessels are not complying with the voluntary slowdown in the Cabot Strait. Therefore, it must be made mandatory — before it is too late. Each death pushes right whales closer to extinction."

EGNO 2140 (a.k.a. Peanut) was a male born in 1991 and died in 2017 after being struck by a ship. (Peter Duley/NOAA/NEFSC)

Researchers were excited to see a boon in calves this season with 10 new whales observed in U.S. waters, but Fisheries and Oceans Canada said one is presumed dead.

Last month, a days-old calf was spotted with injuries from a vessel strike. 

Since 2017, 29 whales — not counting the calf presumed dead — have died, 20 of them in Canadian waters.

Elmslie said Oceana Canada uses data collected from GPS and various "ship tracking sources," to determine the speeds of vessels in the Cabot Strait, the main throughway for marine traffic — vessels and sea creatures alike — to access the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Atlantic Ocean. 

Kim Elmslie, Oceana Canada campaign director, says the voluntary slowdown should be made mandatory in order to protect North Atlantic right whales. (Oceana Canada)

She said her organization sends weekly reports on slowdown compliance in the area to Transport Canada and is planning to send a full report in July. 

In the latest weekly report, which covers May 19 to 25, Elmslie said the highest speed recorded was 21.1 knots, and that was by a Canadian cargo ship. In comparison, she said right whales travel at about five knots. 

A press release from Oceana Canada said research shows that pregnant females and mothers with calves may be more susceptible to ship strikes since they spend more time resting at the surface. 

Twenty-nine right whales have died since 2017 — 20 of them in Canadian waters. (Transport Canada)

An emailed response from Transport Canada on Friday afternoon did not directly address the issue of making the slowdowns mandatory. 

The message said the department is working with the shipping industry to figure out why more ships aren't slowing down. 

"Transport Canada has been actively monitoring participation rates in the voluntary slow-down measure, which has ranged from 54% to 38% over the course of the spring trial."

The email also says, "Multiple factors can render it difficult for vessels to participate in this trial slowdown at times, including severe weather related factors such as gale-force winds and excessively rough seas. Participating in these measures during these circumstances may pose a safety hazard to both the vessels and the crews. Navigational factors and tidal conditions can also affect vessels' ability to participate in a slowdown."

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