New Brunswick

Vessels in 89 transits allegedly broke speed limit designed to protect North Atlantic right whales

Vessels in at least 89 transits allegedly exceeded the speed limit in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the first three weeks after it was imposed last summer to try to prevent further deaths of endangered North Atlantic right whales, a document obtained by CBC News shows.

Only 14 vessels fined by Transport Canada so far for August offences in Gulf of St. Lawrence, document shows

At least 17 North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Canadian and U.S. waters last year. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Vessels in at least 89 transits allegedly exceeded the speed limit in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the first three weeks after it was imposed last summer to help protect North Atlantic right whales, a document obtained by CBC News shows.

It's unclear how many trips made after the Aug. 30 report to the transport minister violated the speed limit of 10 knots, which was in effect until Jan. 11.

Transport Canada officials did not provide that information to CBC by the end of the workday Monday, as requested.

To date, only 14 vessels have each been fined $6,000 "for alleged non-compliance of the temporary mandatory slowdown," department spokeswoman Julie Leroux confirmed in an email.

That was the minimum fine possible for a first offence of travelling between 10 and 14 knots, according to the document obtained through an access to information request.

At least 17 right whales died in Canadian and U.S. waters last summer and scientists believe human activity, including shipping and fishing, was the primary cause.

Necropsies on seven of the endangered whales showed four died of blunt force trauma from collisions with ships, while the other three appear to have died from being entangled in fishing gear.

There are only about 500 North Atlantic right whales left in the world.

On Aug. 11, Transport Canada imposed a temporary mandatory slowdown to 10 knots (about 18.5 kilometres an hour) on all vessels of 20 metres or more in length travelling in the western part of the gulf, from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island.

The temporary speed restriction of 10 knots covered the western part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island. (CBC)

Normally those ships would travel at around 18 knots.

Vessels under 20 metres were asked to voluntarily comply.

The update to the minister on using the speed limit to protect whales says industry "thoroughly understands" the need for the restriction in the area.

But industry also made it clear the move is "not without economic consequences," the report says.

Nearly 1 in 4 ship transits too fast

The Canadian Coast Guard's Marine Communications and Traffic Services, or MCTS, continued to track ships in real-time during their transit and notified ship masters when their ship exceeded the 10 knots, according to the report to the minister.

"This has proven helpful in ensuring compliance," it says.

By the time of the Aug. 30 report, Transport Canada Marine Safety had been advised of "89 incidences of non-compliance compared to roughly 370 vessel transits." 

That would mean a speed violation in nearly one of every four transits.

Eight of the cases involved speeds of 11 knots or more, but the report doesn't provide the maximum speeds reached.

"The majority of the cases are a fraction of a knot over the prescribed speed and for a short duration," it says.

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir William Alexander was the second worst offender among the 11 fined vessels Transport Canada released the speeds for. It was travelling at 12.9 knots, while MV EM KEA was clocked at 13.3 knots. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

Additional information from Transport Canada shows 11 of the 14 fines were issued for speeds ranging between 10.5 knots and 13.3 knots.

Transport Canada can't provide the speeds related to the other three fines since those vessels are still able to appeal, Leroux said in an email.

All vessel owners have 30 days to pay the penalty or to ask the Transportation Appeal Tribunal of Canada to review the case or the amount of the penalty, she said.

The fined vessels include a Canadian Coast Guard vessel, cruise ships, cargo ships and an oil tanker. They are:

The other vessels fined for alleged non-compliance include the car/passenger ferry CTMA Vacancier, the bulk carrier Federal Cardinal and container ship Mississauga Express.

Asked how close the speeding vessels were to whale sightings, Leroux said: "The location of vessels with relation to whales at a specific time is not available. 

"The speed restriction applied to the entire area of the zone, not only where whales were sighted on a given day."

We will continue to monitor the situation and will not hesitate to impose the speed restriction again if the whales migrate back to the area.- Julie Leroux , Transport Canada spokesperson

The speed restriction was lifted earlier this month because whales haven't been seen in the gulf since the beginning of December and are not expected when pack ice is present, officials have said.

"Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada are developing a plan to mitigate the risk of human activities on the whales, such as vessel traffic and fishing, for 2018 and beyond," Leroux said Monday.

"We will continue to monitor the situation and will not hesitate to impose the speed restriction again if the whales migrate back to the area."

15 cases deemed 'priorities'

A footnote in the report to the minister indicates a ship's speed can be impacted by factors other than engine speed, such as winds and currents.

"Hence, ships may often register a variation of a few tenths of a knot for a certain period given these external factors. The warning by MCTS allows the master to adjust engine speed to compensate."

"Marine Safety inspectors are following up on 15 cases determined to be priorities," the document states, without elaborating on the criteria used.

Some of the whales died from collisions with ships, while others appeared to die from being entangled in fishing gear. (International Fund for Animal Welfare)

The compliance verification process requires a review of the vessel's track, based on data collected by the coast guard, including time, latitude, longitude and speed over ground.

"If enough evidence exists," a marine safety inspector is dispatched to the vessel to collect additional data, including the log book, and to speak to the master to verify the information. If the speed infraction is verified, the monetary penalty is levied.

The maximum for a first offence of between 10 and 14 knots is $7,800.

The overall maximum of $25,000 applies only to a third violation of travelling at more than 17 knots or for any fourth offence, the document shows.

Level of severity Vessel observed speed 1st violation 2nd violation 3rd violation 4th violation
1 More than 10 knots, but not more than 14 knots $6,000 + 30% $9,000 ±30% $12,000 ± 30% $25,000 - 30%
2 More than 14 knots, but not more than 17 knots $9,000 ± 30% $12,000 ± 30% $18,000 ± 30% $25,000 - 30%
3 More than 17 knots $12,000 ± 30% $18,000 ± 30% $25,000 - 30% $25,000 - 30%

Industry concerns

The memo to the minister lists "two issues of note" in a section dealing with industry concerns, based on weekly calls between industry, Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and coast guard officials.

Ports indicated there was a "high probability" that cruise ships would cancel their calls in September and October because of the slowdown, and might decide to cancel the routes, which would have "important regional economic impacts."

Oceanex indicated it was facing additional costs of $100,000 a week, including higher fuel costs, because it has to travel faster outside the restriction zone to make up for lost time.

As a result, the company introduced a temporary "marine protection surcharge" of four per cent of freight charged for goods moved between Montreal and St. John's, N.L.

CBC New Brunswick launched Deep Trouble: a podcast series that brings together the interviews and stories by CBC journalists who covered a deadly summer for the North Atlantic right whale. Listen to the full discussion and subscribe to the Deep Trouble podcast from the CBC Podcast page or subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.


  • An earlier version of this story indicated 89 vessels exceeded the speed limit. In fact, the number 89 applies to the number of trips through the Gulf of St. Lawrence that broke the limit, not the number of vessels.
    Jan 24, 2018 4:11 PM AT

With files from Dean Beeby