Try­ing to pro­tect whales

Ot­tawa or­ders ships to slow down in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Cape Breton Post - - News | Cape Breton/Atlantic -

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment is or­der­ing large ves­sels to slow down in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, as it tries to pro­tect right whales who fre­quent the wa­ters.

Ten of the en­dan­gered mam­mals have died in the gulf since early June — at least some af­ter col­lid­ing with ships.

Fish­eries Min­is­ter Do­minic LeBlanc and Trans­port Min­is­ter Marc Garneau went to Pointe-du-Chene, N.B., Fri­day to an­nounce im­me­di­ate tem­po­rary mea­sures aimed at pre­vent­ing fur­ther whale deaths.

Garneau said ves­sels of 20 me­tres or more will be re­quired to slow to 10 knots — or about 19 kilo­me­tres per hour — while trav­el­ling in the west­ern Gulf of St. Lawrence, from the Que­bec north shore to just north of Prince Ed­ward Is­land. The lim­its of that zone are sub­ject to change, he said.

“These are rea­son­able mea­sures to ac­com­plish some­thing very im­por­tant,’’ Garneau said. “I think that Cana­di­ans and the ship­ping in­dus­try and the fish­ing in­dus­try rec­og­nize that this is some­thing most un­usual and we need to take mea­sures.’’

The mea­sure will be en­forced by Trans­port Canada and the Cana­dian Coast Guard. Ships that don’t com­ply with the speed limit will be sub­ject to a fi­nan­cial penalty of up to $25,000.

Smaller ships are be­ing asked to vol­un­tar­ily abide by the speed limit, which will re­main in place un­til the whales have mi­grated from the ar­eas of the gulf that pose the most con­cern.

The mea­sure was de­signed in con­sul­ta­tion with the fish­ing and ship­ping in­dus­tries, who Garneau said have for the most part em­braced the con­ser­va­tion ef­fort.

“We do re­al­ize that there is some im­pact, but I think the ma­rine in­dus­try also rec­og­nizes that we are try­ing to achieve some­thing ex­tremely im­por­tant,’’ he said.

Garneau said cruis­ing speeds typ­i­cally hover around 15 knots, on av­er­age, but faster ves­sels can reach up to 25 knots.

The speed limit is meant to re­duce the fre­quency and fa­tal­ity of ship strikes, he said.

Fed­eral of­fi­cials did their “home­work’’ be­fore de­cid­ing on the mea­sure, the min­is­ter said, in­clud­ing work­ing with their U.S. coun­ter­parts at the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which im­ple­mented sim­i­lar speed re­stric­tions in right whale habi­tats in 2010.

LeBlanc said the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has spent around $360,000 on per­form­ing necrop­sies, akin to an­i­mal au­top­sies, on six whale car­casses. He said the full re­sults of these ex­am­i­na­tions are ex­pected to be re­leased next month.

Early find­ings sug­gest some of the whales died of ei­ther en­tan­gle­ments with fish­ing gear or from blunt trauma caused by ship col­li­sions.

It’s be­lieved 80 to 100 right whales are cur­rently in the gulf, LeBlanc said, and sci­en­tists ex­pect the mam­mals to mi­grate south some time this fall.

The Fish­eries De­part­ment has al­ready taken steps to pre­vent fur­ther deaths, in­clud­ing short­en­ing the snow crab sea­son and ask­ing fish­er­men in the gulf to re­port any whale sight­ings.

LeBlanc said the ex­ist­ing mea­sures will be con­tin­u­ously re­viewed based on aerial sur­veil­lance of the whales’ mi­gra­tion pat­terns. He said fur­ther steps may in­clude tem­po­rary fish­ery clo­sures, changes to fish­ing gear, and ship­ping lane ad­just­ments.

The speed re­stric­tions could lead to up to seven-hour de­lays for some voy­ages, ac­cord­ing to the Ot­tawa-based Cham­ber of Ma­rine Com­merce, but pres­i­dent Bruce Bur­rows said in­dus­try stake­hold­ers are com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing ma­rine life.

“These re­cent whale deaths are deeply trou­bling for our mem­bers too,’’ Bur­rows said in a state­ment. “It’s crit­i­cal that in­dus­try and gov­ern­ment con­tinue to work closely to­gether to de­velop solutions based on strong science that both pro­tect ma­rine wildlife and min­i­mize eco­nomic im­pacts.’’

The cham­ber, which rep­re­sents around 130 ma­rine in­dus­try stake­hold­ers, said ship own­ers are assess­ing how the mea­sure will af­fect de­liv­er­ies and pas­sen­ger trips along Que­bec’s north shore.

Bur­rows said ship own­ers have hewed to vol­un­tary pro­tec­tion mea­sures when pos­si­ble and urged the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to “ac­cel­er­ate’’ its anal­y­sis of the right whale deaths.

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