The container ship Zim Antwerp arrives in Halifax, N.S. on Thursday June 29, 2017.

The container ship Zim Antwerp arrives in Halifax, N.S. on Thursday June 29, 2017.
Photo Credit: PC / THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stringer

Ottawa drops vessel speed limit requirement meant to protect endangered right whales


The federal government has lifted the mandatory speed limit for large vessels going through the Gulf of St. Lawrence, saying there have been no recent sightings of the endangered North Atlantic right whales the slowdown in marine traffic was intended to protect.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau also argued the measure was needed to “ensure ships can maintain manoeuverability in winter conditions and for the safety of those operating in Canadian waters.”

Ottawa ordered the mandatory speed restriction for vessels 20 metres or more to a maximum of 10 knots in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence in August 2017, following the unprecedented deaths of 12 right whales in the gulf.

The 2017 was a particularly deadly year for North Atlantic right whales, a population that now only numbers around 450: there were 17 whale deaths – 12 in Canada and five in the U.S. – due to vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.

A dead North Atlantic right whale is shown in this undated handout image in the River of Ponds area in western Newfoundland.
A dead North Atlantic right whale is shown in this undated handout image in the River of Ponds area in western Newfoundland. © PC/HO

Garneau said since the introduction of the speed limit, Transport Canada has issued 13 penalties for alleged non-compliance of the temporary mandatory slowdown and several cases are under review by the department’s marine safety and security inspectors.

“Our government took forceful action in response to the whale deaths in the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” Garneau said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the situation and will impose the speed restriction again if the whales migrate back to the area.”

The federal government continues to work with partners, scientific experts, industry, environmental groups, and the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine a comprehensive approach to ensure these marine mammals are protected, officials said.

“While lifting the slowdown at this time helps ensure safe transit for mariners during harsh winter conditions, our focus is on continuing to work with partners on the effective actions we will take to protect the iconic North Atlantic right whale,” said Dominic Le Blanc, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

In this Feb. 2009 photo provided by the New England Aquarium, North Atlantic right whales swim with their calves in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the United States near the border between Florida and Georgia.
In this Feb. 2009 photo provided by the New England Aquarium, North Atlantic right whales swim with their calves in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the United States near the border between Florida and Georgia. © AP Photo/New England Aquarium

The problem of protecting the right whales is being compounded by the fact that since 2011 there have been huge shifts in their habitats, experts say.

Fewer whales started appearing in the Bay of Fundy and off the southern Nova Scotia shelf, with larger numbers appearing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where they weren’t seen in large numbers previously.

Rosalind Rolland, a senior scientist in the Ocean Health and Marine Stress Lab at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, said the rapid warming of the waters in the Gulf of Maine is affecting the whales’ main food source, a very small temperature-sensitive copepod, forcing it to move further north. And the whales follow their food into areas they haven’t been seen previously in such big numbers.

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