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Whales Keep Dying Under Canadian Law That Gently Suggests Ships Slow Down

A new report by an environmental group says most ships are not honouring the government's request they slow down to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
June 19, 2020, 9:00am
North Atlantic Right Whale
North Atlantic right whale. Image via NOAA. 

The Canadian government has kindly asked ships to slow down in the waters between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, in order to prevent them from killing endangered North Atlantic right whales. But most ships are ignoring that request, putting the very survival of the species at risk.

The environmentalist group Oceana released a report showing that 72 percent of the ships they measured traveling through the Cabot Strait were not obeying the voluntary slowdown order.

Of the 400-odd remaining North Atlantic right whales, several are killed every year by ships. They’re big, slow, hard to see, and they spend a lot of time at the surface, making them especially vulnerable to shipping traffic, which is predominantly made up of huge vessels that can’t easily turn or slow down if they spot a whale. But speed is one easy way to limit the damage: research has shown that 86 percent of the time, the whales can survive an impact from a ship going less than 10 knots (about 18.5 km/h). At faster than 20 knots—well within the cruising speed of many large ships—none survive.

“Whales aren’t really dying of natural causes anymore,” says Kim Elmslie, campaign director with Oceana Canada. “They’re dying because of things we do to them.”

‘It used to be like clockwork’

Prior to 2015, it was unusual to see a North Atlantic right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where the St. Lawrence River runs into a basin encircled by the Maritime provinces, Quebec and Newfoundland. The whales used to prefer the Bay of Fundy, between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

“It used to be like clockwork,” Elmslie says. With climate change, though, that has suddenly shifted. “They’re coming north looking for food.”

Government regulators, partnering with industry, academics and environmentalists actually had a famous success story in the Bay of Fundy in the early 2000s: by moving shipping lanes just a smidge to the side, they prevented the vast majority of shipping strikes. That victory was a world first.

But just 15 years later, in 2017, there was a new crisis when the whales started showing up where they weren’t expected. That year, 12 right whales died in Canadian waters, all as a result of either ship strikes or entanglement in fishing gear.

The situation hasn’t improved much since then, with another nine whales dying in Canadian waters. At least seven whales have died from ship strikes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since 2017.

“The problem is we just don’t know how the whales are using the Gulf,” says Elmslie.

Visual surveys by plane, as well as sightings from boats and even acoustic surveys using buoys and underwater gliders have been brought together to produce a map showing where the whales have been detected. But they’re not easy to find; when traveling, they don’t make much noise, and mothers traveling with calves are known to “whisper” to avoid predators.

Fines issued

The Canadian government brought in new regulations beginning in 2017, to try to get ahead of the problem. There were mandatory slowdowns in the western end of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, followed by “dynamic shipping zones,” which were essentially slowdowns that only came into effect when there were known to be whales around.

But even where vessels are required to slow down, Transport Canada found 127 ships going too fast. The maximum penalty allowed by law is $250,000. Forty fines have been issued since 2017, totalling $271,000 although none this season.

“Transport Canada takes the speed restriction very seriously,” the ministry said in an emailed statement in response to questions from VICE.

The voluntary restriction was brought in on a trial basis from April 28 to June 12, which is approximately when the whales were expected to pass through the Cabot Strait. The trial will resume in October for another six weeks.

The ministry said there are many reasons a ship might not be able to slow down voluntarily, “including severe weather-related factors such as gale-force winds and excessively rough seas,” and that “Participating in these measures during these circumstances may pose a safety hazard to both the vessels and the crews.”

Transport Canada has also been collecting its own data on the uptake of the voluntary restriction, and found a slightly higher rate of participation during the first trial this spring: between 36 and 54 percent of vessels travelled at 10 knots.

More than weather, though, Elmslie says the problem is that slowing down costs money. In our same-day delivery world, delays can be expensive and if they’re voluntary it’s hard to blame the ships for not wanting to be outcompeted.

“It creates an unfair playing field.”

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Correction: A previous version of this story said no fines have been issued. No fines have been issued this season, but 40 fines have been issued since 2017.