Canada’s transport ministry has imposed precautionary speed restrictions on maritime traffic in the western part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, after federal fisheries officials confirmed Wednesday the death of a fifth North Atlantic right whale found on the cost of Anticosti Island in Quebec.
Michelle Sanders, director of Clean Water Policy at Transport Canada, said Thursday the government is ordering an interim precautionary speed restriction of 10 knots, for vessels of 20 metres or more in length travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence, in the two designated shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island.
The measure is effective immediately, she told reporters Thursday during a teleconference briefing with fisheries and Transport Canada officials.
This measure is in addition to the fixed speed restriction introduced on Apr. 28 in a large area of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where vessels 20 metres and longer are restricted to a maximum of 10 knots until mid-November, Sanders said.
Studies show that reducing vessel speed to 10 knots reduces the incidence of whale mortality by 70 per cent, she said. However, it’s not safe for ships to reduce vessel speed in the area below nine knots, Sanders said.
In addition to the reduced speed requirements, Transport Canada will be increasing monitoring of Canadian waters through its National Aerial Surveillance Program in coordination with fisheries officials, Sanders said.
Transport Canada inspectors, with assistance from the Canadian Coast Guard, will enforce this precautionary measure, she said.
Failure to comply with the speed limits can result in a $25,000 fine, Sanders said.
No fines have been issued so far this year, Transport Canada officials said.
Devastating loss for the endangered species
A cause of death for the fifth whale, which was identified as a 16-year-old female with no calves of her own, has yet to be determined.
Scientists with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) collected samples for analysis.
“North Atlantic whales are a highly endangered species,” said Adam Burns, director general of Fisheries Resource Management at DFO.
“We’ve been working closely with partners in Canada and the United States, coastal communities and industry partners to detect right whales and implement robust management measures to mitigate risks to the species.”
These measures include speed restrictions for large vessels and season-long crab and lobster fisheries closures to reduce the risk of whales getting entangled in fishing gear, as well as temporary closures in other six areas in Atlantic Canada triggered by whale sightings, Burns said.
As of today, 16,000 sq. km. has been closed to fishing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence based on confirmed right whale sightings since Apr. 28, Burns said.
Trying to understand whale distribution
Matthew Hardy, manager of Fisheries and Ecosystem Science at DFO, said scientists from Canada and the U.S. are closely monitoring from air and sea known and potential right whale migration routes and feeding areas to try to understand the distribution of the giant cetaceans.
“This season we have recorded 280 sightings of right whales, this represents at least 78 confirmed individual whales,” Hardy said.
Many of these whales were observed in Canadian waters last season and are returning this year, Hardy said.
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Scientists estimated there were 411 North Atlantic right whales last year, before these latest deaths, and seven calves had been born last fall, Burns said.
The loss of five animals in one month represents a 1 per cent drop in population for the most endangered species of large whale in the Atlantic, said officials at the New England Aquarium.
“Last year we estimated that over a third of the world-wide population came to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and we continue to see large number of whales in our waters,” Hardy said.
The problem is the scientists don’t know where the other two thirds of the population is, Hardy admitted.
“The distribution of the right whales this year continues to be largely in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence but we do see that there are differences in the general distribution within that area,” Hardy said. “So we have seen, compared to 2017 and 2018 a little bit of a different shift in distribution, edging north and east from some of the areas we saw many aggregations last year.”
The dead animals were observed in various locations across the Gulf without any specific pattern in terms of their distribution, Hardy said.
The first whale confirmed dead this year was spotted June 4.
Researchers at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium later identified it as a nine-year-old male named Wolverine due to a series of three propeller cuts on his tail stock that reminded researchers of the three blades on the hand of the Marvel comic book character of the same name.
Performing necropsies on the carcasses is a “huge undertaking,” said Isabelle Elliott, the DFO’s marine mammal response coordinator in the Gulf region.
“It takes a lot of people with a lot of different expertise,” said Elliott, who has participated in many of the necropsies. “We have veterinary pathologists, veterinarians, veterinary technicians, biologists, biology technicians and other support personnel that do a lot of other tasks.”
On June 7, veterinarians from the University of Prince Edward Island and the University of Montreal conducted a necropsy in coordination with DFO and the Marine Animal Response Society in Miscou, New Brunswick, Elliott said.
“The results based on gross examination to date are inconclusive, there are still a lot of labs that need to be done and a lot of other off-site testing that can be done that may hopefully yield some results,” Elliott said.
Sad end for Punctuation
A 40-year-old female named Punctuation was the next whale to be found after an aerial survey team discovered the body floating off the Magdalen Islands on June 20.
Punctuation was towed to Petit Étang, Nova Scotia on Monday where a veterinarian team from the University of Prince Edward Island, the Marine Animal Response Society, the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative and DFO performed a necropsy.
“The result of her gross examination was death due to sharp trauma, consistent with vessel strike,” Elliott said. The final detailed results of the necropsy will be available in the coming months.
Only hours after the necropsy began two more dead right whales were spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Monday.
Researchers at the New England Aquarium were able to identify both animals from photographs. One was a well-known adult male, who was at least 33 years old, named Comet for a long scar on his right side, and the other was an unnamed 11-year-old female who had yet to have a calf.
DFO says the pair of whales were located near New Brunswick’s Acadian Peninsula and to the west of Quebec’s Magdalen Island. A necropsy for Comet is planned Friday in Norway, Prince Edward Island, Elliott said.
The carcass of the 11-year-old female is in such a bad state of decomposition that no necropsy is planned for her and DFO officials are working to see if at-sea sampling is possible in her case, Elliott said.
The fifth carcass was found beached on the shore of Anticosti Island in an area that is difficult to access to perform a necropsy, Elliott said.
Climate change drives right whales further north
Researchers at the New England Aquarium say the Gulf of St. Lawrence has become a major new habitat for North Atlantic right whales.
Their principal summer feeding waters in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine have been disrupted by the effects of climate change, researchers say. Rapidly warming deep water there does not provide the preferred environmental conditions for the growth of copepods, the preferred food of right whales. That has forced the right whales to disperse in search of new food sources.
Over the past several years, hundreds of right whales have been found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the summer months.
In 2015, three right whales were found dead in the Gulf. There were no reported deaths in 2016, but in 2017, 12 right whales died there over the course of the summer months.
Canadian officials implemented many regulatory changes for the fishing and shipping industries for the summer of 2018. There were no known right whale deaths in Canada last year, although three carcasses were found off the coast the U.S.
With files from The Canadian Press