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Canada further strengthens its vessel speed restriction scheme in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to help prevent collisions between endangered North Atlantic right whales and ships during the 2020 whale season.

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species, with only about 400 individuals remaining. Named the ‘right’ whale by whalers because it is slow-moving and easy to catch, the species was hunted to near extinction by the late 1800s. Although whaling is no longer a threat, human interactions continue to present the greatest danger to this species. Its habitat and migration routes along the East Coast of Canada and the US are located close to major ports and often overlap with shipping lanes. Hence, in addition to fishing gear entanglements, collisions with vessels are now one of the main causes of premature death of right whales. For this reason, the Canadian government continues to take action to divert ship traffic away from known right whale habitats and to slow down vessels in areas where right whales tend to gather. 

Overview of 2020 protection measures

On 27 February 2020, Transport Canada announced that the following vessel traffic management measures will be enforced in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the 2020 whale season and are applicable to all vessels more than 13 m in overall length:

  • In the Northern and Southern Static Zones, shown in pink in the map below, a fixed mandatory speed restriction of maximum 10 knots applies from 28 April to 15 November.
  • In the Dynamic Shipping Zones A to E, shown in green in the map below, a temporary mandatory speed restriction of maximum 10 knots will enter into force when a right whale is spotted near or in the shipping lanes during the period 28 April to 15 November. This temporary mandatory speed restriction will be in force for 15 days from the last sighting in the zone.
  • In the Seasonal Management Areas north and south of Dynamic Shipping Zone E, shown in dark pink in the map below, a fixed mandatory speed restriction of maximum 10 knots applies from 28 April to 30 June. From 1 July to 15 November, a temporary mandatory speed restriction of 10 knots will enter into force if a right whale is spotted in the area and will remain in force for 15 days.
  • In the Restricted Area near the Shediac Valley, indicated by a star in the map below, a fixed mandatory speed restriction of maximum 8 knots will be implemented mid-season to protect larger numbers of North Atlantic right whales that normally aggregate in the area. The effective date and exact location of the area is to be determined and will be based on observed distributions of the whales. This information will be communicated to mariners via navigational warnings.
  • A Trial Voluntary Speed Restriction Zone, shown in grey in the map below, has also been established ahead of the 2020 whale season and spans from Cabot Strait to the eastern edge of Dynamic Shipping Zone E. To coincide with the North Atlantic right whales’ migration in and out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a voluntary speed restriction of maximum 10 knots applies in this zone during the periods 28 April to 15 June and 1 October to 15 November.

Please visit Transport Canada’s website “Protecting North Atlantic right whales from collisions with ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence” for additional information.

Recommendations

Members and clients with vessels trading to the Gulf of St. Lawrence should make every effort to ensure that masters are informed of the speed restriction zones in force at any given time. Masters should also be encouraged to reduce the ship’s speed to 10 knots or less while transiting areas with voluntary speed restrictions, or alternatively route around the area, and to post lookouts that are familiar with spotting right whales.

If a deviation from the speed restrictions is necessary for safety reasons, a logbook entry must be made, stating the reason for the deviation, speed at which the vessel operated, latitude and longitude at the time of the deviation and time and duration of the deviation. The entry must be signed by the master. If Transport Canada determines that a vessel did not comply with the speed restrictions in force, vessel operators could be fined between CAD 6,000 and CAD 25,000.

The Canadian authorities also provide a useful interactive map on the latest right whale observations and we encourage ships’ crews to report all whale sightings or incidents, thereby contributing to keeping the map up-to-date.

Slow down for right whales in the US too

Ship operators and masters should also note that, at the time of writing, mandatory and voluntary speed restrictions are in force in several right whale management areas along the US East coast. For details, including visual maps of all active speed reduction zones, please visit the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) website “Reducing Ship Strikes to North Atlantic Right Whales“.