Rules aimed at helping right whales based on outdated info, says scientist

A biologist says recent speed restrictions put in place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence don't cover the right geographical area and aren't enough to stop endangered North Atlantic right whales from being struck.

UNB researcher says Transport Canada's speed limit restrictions aren't covering right geographical area

The fifth confirmed dead North Atlantic right whale this year was identified as #3329, a 16-year-old female. (Jolinne Surette/Quoddy Link Marine)

In a series called Deep Trouble, CBC News explores the perils facing the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

A biologist says recent speed restrictions put in place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are based on outdated information and aren't enough to stop endangered North Atlantic right whales from being struck.

On Thursday, in response to six right whale deaths within a few weeks, Transport Canada announced it had implemented an interim, precautionary speed restriction of 10 knots, for vessels of 20 metres or more in length travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence, in two designated shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island.

"I want to make that clear that area is still not under any kind of protection from ship strike," Kimberly Davies, assistant professor in the biological sciences department of the University of New Brunswick Saint John, told CBC's Information Morning.

She said the whales are congregating in areas more north and east than previous years and Transport Canada is basing its restrictions on last year's data.

"So, there has been a precautionary slowdown implemented in some portion of the lanes, but the whales are potentially using a much broader area than that area that's currently protected."

Davies said whales are showing up in places we may not expect, following the tiny crustaceans they feed on known as copepods.

"And these are huge distances," Davies said.

"We've been studying these animals for about three years and kind of thought that we knew where they were most likely to be aggregating and then this year they ended up in a totally different spot." 

It's been two years since 12 right whales, representing three per cent of a critically endangered population, were found dead in Canadian waters.

The fourth dead North Atlantic right whale discovered in Canadian waters this year was identified as an 11-year-old female on the cusp of sexual maturity. (Candace Borutskie/Anderson Cabot Center at the New England Aquarium.)

There were no deaths reported last year and it seemed like precautions such as speed restrictions and rolling fisheries closures were doing the trick. Then on June 4, CCGS A. LeBlanc discovered the first of six dead right whales that have been found this year drifting off Quebec's Gaspé coast. A necropsy performed on that whale was inconclusive in pinpointing the cause of death.

A necropsy on the second whale found dead this year, a breeding female known as Punctuation, found her injuries were consistent with a fatal blow from a ship strike. In fact, the overwhelming cause of right whale deaths is human activities, either from being struck by ships or entangled in fishing gear.

At a right whale meeting in 2017, New England Aquarium scientist Amy Knowlton said 85 per cent of all right whales have been entangled in fishing gear — and 50 per cent have been entangled more than once.

Tonya Wimmer, executive director of the Marine Animal Response Society, spoke with Information Morning Thursday before the sixth whale had been found.

With more than one per cent of the population dead within a few weeks — four within 48 hours — those like Wimmer tasked with trying to find out why these whales are dying are jumping from one massive undertaking to another.

Comet, the third dead North Atlantic right whale found this month, is pictured in the Bay of Fundy on Sept. 13, 2009. (Moira Brown/Anderson Cabot Center at the New England Aquarium)

Taking apart an animal that weighs the equivalent of 10 full-grown elephants is a long, exhausting and smelly task. Wimmer said the recent surge in deaths is not only devastating for a population with little over 400 individuals left but for the teams that must sift through tonnes upon tonnes of rotting flesh looking for answers.

"It's really hard to wrap your head around all of that and sort of keep your mind on the task at hand and not sit there and think, you know, 'What are we doing?" Wimmer said.

"How much can these animals take and how much can they still hold on?'"

Punctuation is seen here with one of her eight calves, swimming off the coast of Georgia in 2006. She was the second North Atlatnic right whale to be found dead in Canadian waters this month. (New England Aquarium taken under NMFS/NOAA permit #655-1652-01)

A bright spot, said Wimmer, is that unlike in 2017, there's not much of a debate whether to perform a necropsy.

"It absolutely is the first priority for everybody including the government, which is a big change from how 2017 started," she said. 

"I think everyone ... involved is very concerned about the species, about what's happening to it and about finding the answers to see what is what is going on." 

Next week, Davies will lead a team of scientists in the Gulf of St. Lawrence over the summer to study right whales and try to understand more about their distribution and where the animals travel from year to year.

With files from Information Morning


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