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Urgent call to protect whales by making 10-knot slowdown mandatory in the Cabot Strait

Photo: Neil Hawkins.

By Leo Ryan, Editor

A new report by advocacy group Oceana Canada confirmed that a voluntary slowdown measure put in place in February by Transport Canada this year to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from deadly ship strikes in the Cabot Strait is being largely ignored. Two-thirds of the vessels travelling in the Cabot Strait between April 28 and June 15 were found to be moving faster than the requested 10-knot limit. “Canada must immediately implement a mandatory slowdown in the Cabot Strait to effectively protect North Atlantic right whales,” said Campaign Director Kim Elmslie.

”In an industry where speed often provides a competitive advantage, we’re concerned that voluntary measures create a disincentive to comply and reward those who do not. A mandatory measure levels the playing field – and, more importantly, will help prevent more whale deaths,” Ms. Elmslie said regarding the report entitled Dangerous Passage.

High vessel speeds put North Atlantic right whales at even greater risk of being killed by ship strikes – one of their leading causes of death. 

The current voluntary measure will go into effect again from October 1 to November 15, 2020. As of July, 90 North Atlantic right whales have been seen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered marine mammals on the planet, with only about 400 individuals remaining. They were designated as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature earlier this month, reflecting the species’ extremely high risk of extinction. The Cabot Strait is a key passage for these whales to their summer feeding grounds.

In June, a right whale calf was found dead off the coast of New Jersey, likely due to fatal ship strikes. In January, a calf was found injured off the coast of Georgia and is presumed to be dead due to severe ship strike wounds. Fatal ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear are top threats to this species, with overall deaths now outnumbering births. 

At least 31 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead since 2017, 21 of them in Canadian waters. 

 Using Global Fishing Watch data, which is a component of the new, innovative tool called Ship Speed Watch, Oceana Canada tracked ship speeds in the Cabot Strait from April 28 to June 15, 2020. During this 49-day period, Transport Canada asked vessels longer than 13 metres to slow down to 10 knots. Exceptionally few complied, with 67 per cent of the ships (464 out of 697) travelling faster than the 10-knot limit, and some vessels even travelling 20 knots or faster. Studies have found that slowing ship speeds to less than 10 knots in areas where these whales may be encountered can reduce the lethality of collisions by 86 per cent.

Ottawa-based Oceana Canada is the Canadian branch of Oceana Inc., founded in 2001 and the largest international organization focused solely on ocean conservation with offices in Brazil, Belize, Chile, the European Union, Peru, the Philippines and the United States.



Photo: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration