St. Lawrence right whales belong to the North Atlantic population, found primarily in the Northwest. This migratory species frequents Canadian coastal waters in the spring, summer and fall because they are rich in its favourite food (DFO, 2019). In winter, the right whales migrate south to the coastal waters off Florida and Georgia, which are important calving areas.

North Atlantic right whales measure 13 to 17 m and can live more than 70 years. Females give birth to a calf every two to six years (DFO, 2019) but significant annual variations are observed in the number of births and the number of females known to never have given birth (CWI, 2019).

North Atlantic Right Whale
Photo credit: Korinne Leblanc, ROMM

In Canada, two areas have been designated as critical North Atlantic right whale habitat: Grand Manan Basin, in the Bay of Fundy, and Roseway Basin, off southwestern Nova Scotia (DFO, 2019). In recent years, biologists have observed a change in the species’ summer distribution pattern: more and more right whales seem to be moving higher into the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence (into the portion located southeast of the Gaspé Peninsula and on the north side of Anticosti Island).

Assessed five times (1980, 1985, 1990, 2003 and 2013) by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), the North Atlantic right whale population was assigned “endangered” status each time. It is also listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, under the US Endangered Species Act and on the Act respecting threatened or vulnerable species list of species likely to be designated threatened or vulnerable in Québec. Worldwide, its population is currently estimated at 411 individuals (NARW Consortium, 2019).

It is estimated that, between 1991 and 2007, in Canada, 50% of North Atlantic right whale mortality was due to ship strikes. Further, more than 80% of individuals have scars attributable to accidental catches in fishing gear (Whales online, 2019).

Action taken to date

In summer 2017, 12 North Atlantic right whale carcasses were discovered in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and 5 others along US coasts, bringing the total number of individuals found dead to 17.
For complete details on this file, see the Whales online website.

Following these events, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada imposed an emergency management measure, setting a 10-knot speed limit for ships over 20 metres in length in an extensive area of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Given this tragic situation and in response to this measure, the marine industry quickly began working with the scientific community and asked the Canadian government to set up a working group to rapidly find solutions aimed at reducing the risks of collision in the Gulf, while minimizing the economic impacts associated with such measures.

From 2017 to 2018, the working group members’ joint efforts made it possible to refine the vessel speed reduction measures initially adopted to better align them with marine carriers’ economic reality. Consequently, from April to November 2018, two areas, with distinct management measures, were established:

  1. A static zone in which the speed limit is 10 knots for ships over 20 metres in length.
  2. A so-called dynamic zone (inside the static zone) in which vessels can travel at normal operating speed as long as no right whales are sighted there or if weather conditions allowed observation flights.

These measures seem to have proven effective since no whale mortality due to a ship strike was observed in Canadian waters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2018 when the speed restriction was in force.



Sectors subject to vessel speed reduction. Source: Transport Canada

Transport Canada reinstated the static and dynamic management measures from April 28 to November 15, 2019. The 2019 measures are based on the most recent scientific data available and result from ongoing collaborative efforts between the government, the scientific community and the marine industry.

  1. The mandatory static speed reduction zone (identified in pink on the map below) is located in the western portion of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In it, the vessel speed limit is always 10 knots for ships over 20 metres in length. Failure to comply with the measure can result in fines[MG1] . All other, smaller ships are invited to voluntarily comply with this speed limit.
  2. The dynamic management zone is divided into four sections–A, B, C and D–inside the static zone (shown in green on the map).

Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) carry out aerial surveillance flights to detect the presence (or absence) of whales in the sectors subject to the speed reduction measure.

If one or more whales are sighted in or near [1] the dynamic corridors, ships over 20 metres in length must reduce their speed to 10 knots until a new observation flight confirms the absence of right whales.

The minimum frequency of observation flights required to be able to confirm the absence of right whales is:

  • 1 flight in 14 days, from April 28 to May 11
  • 1 flight in 7 days, from May 12 to November 1
  • 1 flight in 14 days, from November 2 to 15.

If this minimum observation frequency cannot be maintained due to poor weather conditions, for example, a 10-knot speed limit will be activated as a precaution in the navigation zones in question until an observation flight can be carried out to confirm the absence of right whales.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has also implemented measures to help protect North Atlantic rights whales, including an online interactive map of latest right whale observations, produced in collaboration with Dalhousie University, and fishery management measures.

Finally, the Canadian Coast Guard broadcasts navigational warnings (notices to shipping) to warn ships of the presence, or absence, of whales so that vessels can adapt their speed, if applicable.

Link to notices to shipping (NOTSHIPS):

If a speed limit is activated, it will be in force for 15 days. If, over this 15-day period, no right whales are sighted during the aerial surveillance flights, the speed restriction will be lifted at the end of the period.

If it is impossible to carry out an aerial surveillance flight within a 7-day period due to poor weather conditions, for example, the speed restriction will remain in effect in the areas where a right whale was previously sighted until another aerial surveillance flight can confirm the absence of right whales.


Voluntary slowdown period

From late fall to early spring, weather conditions are less favourable for navigation and whale observation flights. During this time, Transport Canada asks all vessels to slow down to 10 knots if:


1.      The presence of right whales is confirmed in this area

2.      Maritime conditions permit vessels to travel safely at this speed.


Compliance and enforcement

Transport Canada ensures that vessels comply with this measure by examining the data gathered by the Canadian Coast Guard. If a vessel appears to have exceeded the 10-knot speed limit, additional proof may be requested from the ship’s captain.


While no exemptions are granted when files are assessed, certain factors are taken into account, such as:

  • Operational decisions needed to maintain vessel safety
  • Weather and navigational conditions
  • Decisions made in response to emergencies.

If it is determined that vessels did not comply with the speed restrictions in force, vessel owners could be fined from $6 000 to $25 000.


Sources & references:

[1] This approach also applies if a whale is sighted in a 2.5-nautical-mile buffer area adjacent to sectors A, B, C or D or in an area within 2.5 nautical miles of a border between two sectors. In the latter case, a speed limit will be activated in the adjacent sector.

Canadian Whale institute, Right Whale facts

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (2018). North Atlantic Right Whales

Transport Canada (2019) Protecting North Atlantic Right Whales from collisions with ships in the gulfe of St. Lawrence

Whales online. North Atlantic Right Whale