Cape Breton Post
Protecting whales in the Cabot Strait.
Protecting whales in the Cabot Strait
SYDNEY — Oceana Canada is again calling on Transport Canada to make speed restrictions for vessels in the Cabot Strait mandatory.
For the second year in a row, the non-profit organization has found that a majority of vessels in the Cabot Strait are not complying with the voluntary slowdown zone of 10 knots that is meant to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
“The last assessment that came out on the number of (North Atlantic right) whales that were left was (fewer than) 360,” said Oceana Canada campaign director Kim Elmslie. “A few years before that the number had been up at 499. So they are moving towards extinction at this point.”
The voluntary slowdown, implemented by Transport Canada, is in its second year and is in place from April 28 to June 29, 2021, as well as from Sept. 29 to Nov. 15, 2021, to coincide with the bulk of North Atlantic right whale migration in and out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“During this period, vessels more than 13 metres in length are asked to voluntarily reduce their speed to no more than 10 knots over ground in the trial slowdown area,” said Transport Canada senior communications advisor Sau Sau Liu in an emailed statement to the Post.
Liu said current measures are developed in collaboration with marine stakeholders, including the shipping industry, cruise lines, fishing sector, environmental groups and scientists.
“This year, Transport Canada has increased outreach to mariners and vessels transiting the Cabot Strait. Voluntary trials in other jurisdictions have shown that knowledge and awareness are essential to achieving high voluntary participation rates and, in fact, the data our department has compiled is
showing modest improved participation this year over last.”
According to an Oceana news release, one study found that slowing vessel speeds to 10 knots or less can reduce the lethality of a collision by 86 per cent. Other research has identified that compliance with slowdowns is significantly higher when a measure is mandatory.
“It’s also the speed at which under good weather conditions vessels can continue to travel at a safe speed,” said Elmslie. “The larger the vessel is (and) the faster it’s going, the more dangerous it is.”
NOT SLOWING DOWN
Using Global Fishing Watch data as part of an ongoing multi-year analysis, Oceana Canada has released one week of results of vessel speeds in the Cabot Strait voluntary slowdown zone.
Sixty-four per cent of transits — 65 out of 101 involving 58 vessels — failed to comply with the 10-knot voluntary slowdown from April 28 to May 4, the first week the measure was in place in 2021.
“We don’t correct for times when the measure might have been lifted due to bad weather and concerns for vessels safety,” said Elmslie. “We understand the need to maintain the safety of the crew. However,
the risk to the whale remains.”
The highest observed vessel speed was 17.4 knots, worse than the results from the same week in 2020.
“In Canada ... when they come through the Cabot Strait, we don’t completely understand where the right whales are, what waters they’re using. And there’s also blue whales that are in that area, too,” said Elmslie. “So slowing down right now is really sort of the best plan.”
Transport Canada has also implemented mandatory measures throughout much of the Gulf of St. Lawrence which, including the voluntary slowdown zone, cover approximately 72,000 square kilometres.
Liu said the federal government shares Oceana’s desire to protect North Atlantic right whales and will be continuing with the trial voluntary measure this year to further understand factors that inhibit industry from participating in the measure.
“Any eventual decision to move the Cabot Strait slowdown from a voluntary to a mandatory measure will be based on evaluation of more than just participation rates. It would also require evaluating and weighing safety considerations, economic impacts, and a better understanding of the actual risk to North Atlantic right whales in this area.”
The numbers for North Atlantic right whale mortality in Canada have jumped around the past few years. In 2017, there were 17 deaths in Canadian waters, but no known deaths the following year. In 2019, nine died in Canadian waters, but there were no known deaths in Canadian waters in 2020.
“Part of that is there’s a tremendous amount of surveillance that’s going out, so they’re seeing the carcasses, but there could be some whales that are dying that we don’t know about,” said Elmslie.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) U.S. government agency has declared an unusual whale mortality event beginning in 2017 and continuing to present day. The agency states that the leading category for the cause of death for this event is “human interaction,” specifically from fishing entanglements or vessel strikes.
“I do feel that there is a lot of goodwill out there by the various players, shipping, fishing, the government, others ... to find a solution to this,” said Elmslie. “However ... this is that critical time where (we can’t stop efforts) just because we had a good year last year with no known right whale deaths.
“We have to keep the pressure on and we have to keep doing all of the things that we’re doing and continue to look for solutions to go further. We can’t sort of loosen up right now. And this is a sustained effort that’s going to take many years to help this population rebuild again.”