Transport Canada lifts speed limit in Gulf of St. Lawrence

Transport Canada has lifted the speed limit in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, five months after the restriction was put in place to prevent further right whale deaths.

With no right whales in sight, and human safety at risk, officials undo summertime restriction

Twelve North Atlantic right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

Transport Canada has lifted the speed limit in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, five months after the restriction was put in place to prevent further right whale deaths.

The speed restriction was removed "to ensure ships can maintain manoeuvrability in winter conditions and for the safety of those operating in Canadian waters," Transport Canada Minister Marc Garneau said in a release Thursday.

The restriction was also lifted because North Atlantic right whales have not been seen in the gulf since the beginning of December, and are not expected when pack ice is present, said Delphine Denis, spokeswoman for the federal minister of transport, in an email.

"In addition, winter navigation conditions presented growing risks to human safety," she added. 

Moira Brown and Philip Hamilton are two of the many scientists and researchers dedicated to learning more about North Atlantic right whales, documenting their lives and trying to save the species. 11:24

"Based on a risk assessment, it was determined that it was now an appropriate time to lift the restriction."

The restriction introduced Aug. 11 limited large vessels travelling in the Gulf to just 10 knots, or 18 km/h.

In total, 17 right whales were found dead in the Atlantic last year. Twelve of them died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Necropsies on some of the whales revealed four died of blunt force trauma from collisions with ships, and two more appeared to have died from being entangled in fishing gear.

Since September, Transport Canada has fined 13 vessels $6,000 a piece for breaking the speed limit. These vessels included cruise ships, cargo ships, an oil tanker and even a coast guard vessel. 

Transport Canada imposed the speed limit this summer as right whales started turning up dead throughout the gulf. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

All but two vessels have paid the fine as of Friday. The remaining two vessels still have time to appeal.​

Moira Brown, a right whale researcher with the Canadian Whale Institute, said it was "definitely time for the speed restriction to be lifted." 

"We didn't have any vessel strikes after the measure was put in place. It certainly was a burden to the industry but… Pretty soon the gulf will have ice and make navigation really difficult," she said. 

Brown has been researching whales for over 30 years and was featured on the CBC podcast Deep Trouble — a series that brought together interviews and stories by CBC journalists who travelled far and wide to cover the deadly summer for the North Atlantic right whale.

She said organizations, industry leaders and stakeholders should spend the winter looking at what can be done next and consider whether they could "tailor the ship slowdown to match the area with the highest concentration of whales," in the future.

"There's a lot of meetings planned in the next couple months to try and figure out how to best manage this and reduce the risk to the whales while still allowing navigation of vessels through that corridor."