Do­ing right by whales

Truro Daily News - - OPINION -

R ight whales are no­to­ri­ously slow swim­mers, av­er­ag­ing about six miles per hour at top speed. It takes a lot of effort to move a 50-foot, 70-ton body through wa­ter. An av­er­age-sized cruise ship, say at 800 feet in length, pro­pels along at more than 25 miles an hour, weighs more than 55,000 tons — with some 25 feet of draft be­low the wa­ter line.

Should the two head to­wards a col­li­sion, the odds are not good for a right whale to get out of the way or a cruise ship to change course or speed in time. Should the two col­lide, there will be an ob­vi­ous win­ner and loser.

Ten en­dan­gered right whales have died this sum­mer in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, at least two from blunt force trauma. There are only an es­ti­mated 500 right whales left, af­ter they were hunted al­most to the point of ex­tinc­tion in the past cen­tury.

As the death toll mounted this sum­mer, there was a clam­our from en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, sci­en­tists and con­cerned Canadians for pro­tec­tive mea­sures. Ottawa re­sponded by bring­ing in rules for ships in cer­tain ar­eas of the Gulf to re­duce speed or change course to avoid col­li­sions.

The tra­di­tional range for right whales is along the U.S. eastern se­aboard and Bay of Fundy. Sci­en­tists are try­ing to fig­ure out why they are mov­ing into the Gulf — per­haps be­cause of warm­ing wa­ters and more food op­tions since they feed on zoo­plank­ton and krill.

While many cruise lines are fol­low­ing the new rules, others have abruptly can­celled port vis­its and shifted to other cities. Charlottet­own has lost 10 cruise ships and thou­sands of po­ten­tial vis­i­tors. De­spite those can­cel­la­tions, cruise ship traf­fic in At­lantic Canada is up sig­nif­i­cantly this year and so are the risks of col­li­sions with whales.

To­day, tourism in­dus­try stake­hold­ers meet in Charlottet­own to talk about the can­cel­la­tions and the eco­nomic im­pact on city and prov­ince. The prov­ince sup­ports fed­eral ef­forts to pre­vent fu­ture whale deaths, but it also has an econ­omy to run.

The re­stric­tions are tem­po­rary mea­sures un­til the 80 to 100 right whales cur­rently in the gulf mi­grate south this fall, out through the Cabot Strait and close to Syd­ney, Hal­i­fax and Saint John, as the mam­mals pre­fer to re­main close to shore. Will Canada al­ter ship­ping re­stric­tions to match their fall mi­gra­tion?

Sev­eral right whales also died in Amer­i­can wa­ters this year and now the U.S. is launch­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Re­stric­tions on speeds and routes may well ex­pand south of the bor­der. Will some cruise ships then avoid New York, Bos­ton and other ma­jor Amer­i­can ports?

One of the cruise lines, which can­celled vis­its to P.E.I., boasts it has a com­pre­hen­sive Whale Strike Avoid­ance pro­gram in place and takes its re­spon­si­bil­ity to be good stew­ards of the marine en­vi­ron­ment very se­ri­ously. Its ships have clear guide­lines on how to op­er­ate if whales are sighted nearby, which in­clude al­ter­ing course, re­duc­ing speed as re­quired and adding ad­di­tional look­outs in sen­si­tive ar­eas.

So what is their prob­lem obey­ing a few tem­po­rary Cana­dian ship­ping rules?

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