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On January 11, Transport Canada lifted the temporary speed restriction in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A speed limit of a maximum of 10 knots had been imposed on vessels 20 metres or more to reduce the risk of lethal collisions between ships and right whales. The restriction applied to the westernmost portion of the Gulf of St. Lawrence due to the increased presence of right whales in this sector in 2017.

The decision to lift the speed restriction was made to ensure that ships maintain vessel maneuverability in winter conditions and because of the low probability that right whales were in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the winter season, particularly given the ice cover.

Discussions are still under way for the 2018 season. While nothing has been confirmed, another mandatory speed restriction measure for ships 20 metres or more should be announced in the coming weeks.

The Maritime Information Bureau (MIB) has prepared a special infosheet on right whales, highlighting the reasons for this measure’s implementation and its impacts on shipping.


North Atlantic right whale – background[1]

The Species at Risk Act (SARA) lists the North Atlantic right whale as an endangered species. In 2016, the population was estimated at approximately 450 individuals. The right whale’s habitat stretches from Florida to Iceland in the north and Norway to the east.

Historically, right whales summer in Canada, mainly in the Bay of Fundy and the Roseway Basin. In recent years, however, a change has been observed in the species’ geographic range, resulting in more and more individuals being sighted in the western portion of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and north of the western tip of Anticosti Island.

Between June and September 2017, 12 right whale carcasses were found in Canadian waters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Of the 12 right whales found dead, necropsies could be performed on 7 to identify the cause of death. The state of decomposition of the other 5 made it impossible to draw objective conclusions from the necropsy findings.

Of the 7 whales necropsied:[2]

  • 4 died after a ship strike (collision between a ship and a whale).
  • 2 died after becoming entangled in ropes.
  • 1 was in such an advanced state of decomposition that the cause of death could not be confirmed with any certainty. However, signs of blunt trauma were present.

Another 5 whales were victims of entanglement over the summer:[3]

  • 2 were freed by the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, with the support of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
  • 1 was able to disentangle itself without outside assistance.
  • Disentanglement response was not possible for the remaining 2.


How does imposing a speed limit on ships 20 metres or more help protect right whales? 

Regardless of vessel size, ship strikes or collisions can occur in any of the waters frequented by whales and used by ships. There is no such thing as zero risk. However, studies[4] have shown that, at lower speeds, the risk of mortality, in case of a ship strike is reduced. For a ship moving at 10 knots, the probability of causing a lethal collision is estimated at 30%. This percentage increases to 90% for a vessel travelling at 17 knots. Reducing vessel speed does not necessarily prevent ship strikes, but substantially reduces the risk of death resulting from them.

For example, a measure encouraging voluntary speed reduction to 10 knots, covering the summer season (May-October), was implemented in 2013 in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. Ship operators have complied to such an extent that analysis of the 2016 results shows that the risk of lethal collisions has been reduced (compared to 2012, the year before voluntary vessel speed reduction measures were implemented):[5]

  • By 31.71% for blue whales;
  • By 37.88% for fin whales;
  • By 37.70% for humpback whales;
  • By 38.46% for minke whales.

As of the measure’s first year, average vessel speeds decreased considerably at the head of the Laurentian Channel, reducing the risk of mortality in cases involving collisions and improving marine mammal protection. This voluntary measure is still in effect, and a new notice to mariners will be issued in this regard for the 2018 summer season.


Has the marine industry complied with the mandatory speed reduction measure in the Gulf?

The answer is “yes”. Over the period the speed reduction measure was imposed (August 11, 2017-January 11, 2018), almost 90% of the ships that crossed the zone in question complied with the prescribed vessel speed limit. Some even slowed down further.

Of the 542 vessels that failed to comply with the speed restriction, 14 were fined $6000. Transport Canada continues to investigate other cases of non-compliance.


Speed: a difficult variable to measure  

Credits: Aurore Pérot / Stratégies Saint-Laurent

Many parameters are involved in slowing down a ship. To begin with, there will always be a lapse between the time the “slow down” command is carried out and the time the slower speed is observable (the same as for a car, truck or train). The heavier the ship, the longer the time lapse, which, when a ship is moving, translates into distance travelled. This is the phenomenon of inertia.

Furthermore, environmental conditions liked wind, waves and currents affect vessel speed.

Instruments used to measure vessel speed can also be biased by factors like vessel movement, pitching and rolling.

Under such conditions, a measured vessel speed just over 10 knots may be caused by such factors over a short period of time. This is why, for the cases currently under investigation, verifications are being carried out to determine the period of time over which speeding was maintained.


Are there other ways to protect the whales?

One of the difficulties ships face when trying to avoid colliding with a whale is that detection instruments used do not allow whales to be located in real time. The whales are either not seen by the ship before the collision or they are seen too late. Under such circumstances, the avoidance strategy is not effective.

In the near future,[6] Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc is expected to announce an investment in real-time whale detection technology.*

The fishing industry is also working to adopt new equipment[7] such as the underwater buoys presented at a training session at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, These buoys sink to the bottom, rather than floating on the water’s surface. This way the ropes attached to traps are held down on the ocean floor so that whales do not get entangled in them.

On January 23, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc announced series of management measures for the 2018 snow crab fishing season,[8] in particular reducing the amount of rope floating on the water’s surface, better identification of ropes and the buoys they are attached to and mandatory reporting of all lost gear.

Finally, various committees and working groups[9] comprising stakeholders from the fishing industry, shipping, cruise ships, governments and the research community are working together to propose concrete solutions to reduce the risks associated with whales being exposed to human activities.

*Transport Canada announced, after this article was written, a new measure to reduce the speed of vessels over 20 feet in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.


[1] The information contained in this section was taken from the Fisheries and Oceans Canada  and from the Whales Online websites

[2] Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, December 2017, Incident Report: North Atlantic Whale Mortality Event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2017, page 14.

[3] Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, December 2017, Incident Report: North Atlantic Whale Mortality Event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2017, Live Whale Incidents and Table 2 Live entanglements of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017.  Online:

[4]Angelia S.M. Vanderlaan, Christopher T. Taggart, January 2007, Vessel Collisions with Whales: The Probability of Lethal Injury based on Vessel Speed.

[5] Clément Chion, March 2017, Université du Québec en Outaouais, Impacts des mesures volontaires visant à réduire les risques de collisions mortelles de grands rorquals avec des navires marchands dans l’estuaire du Saint-Laurent en 2016. Mise à jour de l’évaluation des gains en conservation des mesures volontaires par le Groupe de travail sur le transport maritime et la protection des mammifères marins (G2T3M) et évaluation de leur impact sur le temps de transit des navires marchands (page3).

[6] Le Soleil, February 7, 2018, Johanne Fournier, Investir pour mieux détecter les baleines noires.

[7] Radio-Canada, February 6, 2018, Nicolas Steinbach, De nouveaux équipements de pêche en développement pour protéger les baleines noires.

[8] Fisheries and Oceans Canada, January 23, 2018, news release. Minister LeBlanc announces new protections for whales.

[9] Including the Working Group on Marine Traffic and Protection of Marine Mammals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (G2T3M) and Fisheries and Ocean’s Ministerial round table on North Atlantic Right Whales.