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Most vessels obeyed emergency Gulf speed limit to protect endangered whales

Last Updated Jan 19, 2018 at 6:00 pm EST

A dead North Atlantic right whale is shown in this undated handout image in the River of Ponds area in western Newfoundland. Almost 90 per cent of ships that passed through the Gulf of St. Lawrence over the last five months complied with an emergency speed limit to help protect the whales. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Fisheries and Oceans Canada

OTTAWA – Almost 90 per cent of the ships that passed through the Gulf of St. Lawrence over the last five months complied with an emergency speed limit to help protect the whales that plied those same waterways — and the department will reimpose the limit immediately if the whales return this year.

In August, Transport Canada imposed a limit of 10 knots on all ships longer than 20 metres after a dozen right whales were found dead in the Gulf, a 240,000-square kilometre area that ties the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean via the Cabot Strait and the Straight of Belle Isle.

In seven cases where the cause of death is known, five whales were killed by ships and two drowned after being caught up in fishing gear.

Transport Canada says there were 4,711 ships affected by the speed limit in the Gulf between Aug. 11 and Jan. 11, when the speed limit was lifted. Of those, 542 were found by the Canadian Coast Guard to be moving faster than 10 knots.

Further investigation resulted in 14 ships being fined — all of them the minimum $6,000. Evidence was insufficient to levy fines in 450 cases. There are 78 cases still pending.

Sonia Simard, director of legislative and environmental affairs for the Shipping Federation of Canada, said factors like currents and waves can have an impact on a ship’s speed at any given moment and have to be factored into a decision to levy a fine.

In total, 17 right whales died last summer off the east coasts of Canada and the United States, a significant loss for one of the most endangered species in the world. There are believed to be just 451 right whales left in the world.

Their presence in the Gulf of St. Lawrence hasn’t been tracked well until recent years, but scientists believe the whales are spending a lot of time there, with more than 100 spotted in the Gulf last summer.

In addition to the speed limit there were restrictions placed on some fisheries to try and keep whales from getting caught up in their lines.

Delphine Denis, spokeswoman for Transport Minister Marc Garneau, said the department is working on plans to mitigate human impacts on the whales both for this year and the long term.

“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,” Denis said.

Simard said the shipping industry wants to do what it can to help, but said last year the limit was imposed in a huge area and it would be more effective to impose it only in the areas where the whales are congregating, rather than right across the Gulf.

Simard said there was most certainly an economic impact on the shipping industry from the speed limit, adding between five and eight hours to the time most ships took to travel across the Gulf. That affects everything from cruise ship schedules to cargo port times, often forcing ships to go faster than usual in other areas to make up the time, burning more fuel in the process.

Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in the United States, said slowing down ships is a proven and effective way to protect whales. She said the size of the area for the speed limit should be based on science and what is needed to protect right whales, “not drawn to appease industry.”

Monsell’s organization launched a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service in the United States this week arguing it failed to prevent whales from getting trapped in fishing lines. She said the organization is still considering its options in Canada.

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