New Brunswick

As U.S. and Canada try to solve whale deaths, some ships in gulf break speed limit

Just two weeks after imposing a mandatory speed limit to protect right whales in parts of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Transport Canada says not all ships are heeding it.

Transport Canada hears of 75 violations of speed limit imposed to avert collisions with whales

Marine mammal experts are conducting full necropsies, and other investigations will be needed to figure out what caused the deaths of at least 13 North Atlantic right whales found along the eastern seaboard. (HO-Department of Fisheries and Oceans/Canadian Press)

Just two weeks after imposing a mandatory speed limit to protect right whales in parts of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Transport Canada says not all ships are heeding it.

The department has been advised of 75 cases where a vessel exceeded the 10-knot limit for a short time, spokesperson Pierre Manoni said.

Marine safety and security inspectors are reviewing about 10 of the cases, Manoni said in an email Thursday.

But after launching a joint investigation into the deaths of North Atlantic right whales, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said Friday that ships have mostly complied with the reduction order.

Crews "understand the importance and they're acting accordingly, despite that it is very disruptive to some of their activities," said Matthew Hardy, the aquatic resources management division manager for Fisheries.

"So we appreciate their compliance on this and their understanding that the priority is to protect these whales."

Atlantic seaboard investigates

Canada and the U.S. joined forces Friday, launching a new investigation into why at least 13 of the endangered whales have died this year. A few of the corpses were found off New England, but most were found in Canadian waters.

The deaths were declared an "unusual mortality event," or UME, by the the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Such a declaration, made when a significant number of animals die, demands an immediate response and leads to an investigation into the cause, the agency said. 

A dead right whale was found on the west coast of Newfoundland. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Only about 500 North Atlantic right whales remain.

David Gouveia of NOAA's protected species monitoring program said the whales' recovery is "fragile" and one of the most difficult conservation efforts undertaken by the U.S. agency and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The average number of whale deaths in a year is usually only 3.8.

"Thirteen animals is a lot of animals when you're talking about a population of less than 500," said Sean Hayes, protected species branch chief for the U.S. agency.

"It's anywhere from two to three per cent of the entire population."

Report could be months away

NOAA looks at seven criteria when declaring an unusual mortality event. 

The agency said the North Atlantic right whale deaths meet four of them, including a "marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in the nature" of the deaths, compared with prior records, a change from the past in where the deaths are happening, and their effect on a "particularly vulnerable" population.

Like Canada, the New England states have made restricted speed and seasonal zone closures part of their strategy for protecting whales, officials said.

Fishing ropes, ships suspected

Necropsies being done on the whales are not a guarantee of clear answers, since the carcases were so decomposed when found, they said.

The primary concerns are collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing ropes, Hardy said, but investigators are dedicated to pursuing a "holistic look at the entire situation."

A report from the NOAA and DFO is likely months away. The final report will be used by both countries to correct whatever is causing the deaths.