North Atlantic right whale and calf. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)

Oceana Canada is calling on the federal government to impose a mandatory speed limit for vessels in the Cabot Strait to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The ocean conservation advocacy group’s plea comes following a new report showing very few vessel operators are complying with the request of a voluntary 10-knot speed limit. That voluntary speed limit was implemented to help protect the whales from ship strikes in the Cabot Strait. 

Kim Elmslie, campaign director for Oceana Canada. Photo: Oceana Canada

“Their numbers are on a downward trajectory, so if we don’t do everything possible to protect these animals, we could see this animal go extinct within the next 20 years,” Kim Elmslie, campaign director for Oceana Canada, said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. 

“Right now is the time to act, now is the time that the government has to pull out all of the stops and do everything possible.”

Launched on Tuesday, the Dangerous Passage report reveals that between April and June, 67% of ships (464 of 697) were ignoring the voluntary slow down put in place by Transport Canada earlier this year. The federal authority had requested that between April 28 to June 15, vessels longer than 13 metres reduce their speeds to 10-knots. 

The Cabot Strait is a key passage for North Atlantic right whales enroute to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, forcing them to navigate the busy shipping area between Cape Breton and the southwestern coast of Newfoundland. 

Only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remain, making them one of the most endangered marine mammals on the planet. Fatal ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements are their top threats, and overall deaths of this species now outnumber their births.

An injured North Atlantic right whale. Photo: Nick Hawkins/Fisheries and Oceans Canada

At least 31 of the whales have been found dead since 2017, with 21 of those deaths having occurred in Canadian waters. So far this year, two of the 10 whale calves born over the winter have been struck by ships. One died and the other is presumed dead.

“So we’ve already killed two whales, and this is a population that all of the scientific estimates are saying we can’t even afford to kill one whale a year,” Elmslie said.

Using Global Fishing Watch data to track ship speeds in the strait during Transport Canada’s 49-day voluntary speed limit period, Oceana Canada found some vessels were actually traveling 20-knots or faster. 

Elmslie said she was surprised by just how few vessel operators complied with the voluntary speed limit request. She points to areas where the federal government has made it mandatory for vessels to restrict their speed, noting compliance in those zones is far higher.  

“Transport Canada on their website they track the compliance and they looked at the speeds of almost 3,000 vessels going through those different zones and they’ve only identified 186 that were going above 10-knots in the mandatory zones,” she said. 

“So that says to me the mandatory zones are working and mandatory is the way you have to go.” 

Elmslie said they’ve reached out to federal Minister of Transport Marc Garneau to share their weekly data and details of today’s report. Although her organization has yet to receive a formal response to the ‘Dangerous Passage’ report, she expects a meeting in the near future. 

The voluntary Cabot Strait speed restriction goes into effect again from Oct. 1 to Nov. 15. Elmslie is hoping the federal government will make a 10-knot speed limit mandatory before then.

“They can make this measure very quickly into a mandatory measure, which is what we saw in 2017 when there was that first incidence with a lot of whales dying,” she said. 

In addition to the need for a mandatory speed limit in the Cabot Strait, Oceana Canada also wants to see enhanced monitoring and surveillance of the area to better understand when and where whales are present. 

“People just really love whales and they love to see them, they love to experience them, they love them in the ocean. There’s something about them that engages us and we want them in our oceans,” Elmslie said.

“The International Monetary Fund put together (a report asking) ‘What’s the value of a whale for the environment?’ and they said the average whale is worth about $2 million and thousands of trees…They’re important in this world of climate change, they’re important to our environment and they’re important to us.”

A smiling white woman with long straight dark blonde hair and bangs, with half her face in dramatic shadow

Yvette d'Entremont

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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