Oceana Canada Research Reveals Ships are Ignoring Voluntary Slowdown Zone Designed to Protect Endangered Right Whales

Oceana Canada today released one week of results of an ongoing analysis of vessel speeds in a voluntary slowdown zone in the Cabot Strait, a key passage for endangered North Atlantic right whales as they migrate into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in search of food. Using data from Global Fishing Watch, Oceana Canada revealed that between May 19 and 25, 2020, the vast majority, 72 per cent, were not complying with the voluntary slowdown of 10 knots, exposing the fact that mandatory speed limits are needed to slow vessels down. The highest observed speed – 21.1 knots – was a Canadian cargo ship.

North Atlantic right whales are one of the world’s most endangered whales, with only around 400 left. Studies have found that slowing ship speeds to 10 knots or less in areas where these whales may be encountered can reduce the lethality of a collision by 86 per cent.

Transport Canada uses several measures to try to protect right whales from ship strikes, including a combination of mandatory season-long and temporary slowdown zones. In February, Transport Canada announced a voluntary speed limit in the Cabot Strait of 10 knots for vessels that are 13 metres and longer that would take effect from April 28 to June 15 and again from October 1 to November 15, 2020. The main route into the Gulf of St. Lawrence for right whales is the Cabot Strait. Right whales were first spotted in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence last month on May 3.

Oceana Canada has been sharing weekly reports of the exceptionally high level of non-compliance with the voluntary measures with Transport Canada, urging that they be made mandatory.

“In an industry where speed often provides a competitive advantage, we are concerned that having a voluntary slowdown creates a disincentive for vessel operators to comply with the speed restriction and an unfair edge to those who don’t – some of whom are travelling at almost double the recommended speed,” said Kim Elmslie, Oceana Canada Campaign Director. “The high level of non-compliance, and lack of consequence, poses a real threat for individual right whales and the survival of the species as a whole.”

Research has also shown that pregnant females and mothers with calves may be more susceptible to ship strikes, as they spend more time resting at the surface. One newborn calf has already been struck this winter in U.S. waters and is presumed to be dead. At least 10 right whales were killed last year and only seven calves were born over the winter. There were 22 deaths in Canadian waters between 2017 and 2019.

“We must do everything we can to protect all right whales and prevent the extinction of this species”, said Elmslie. “Vessels are not complying with the voluntary slowdown in the Cabot Strait; therefore, it must be made mandatory – before it is too late. Each death pushes right whales closer to extinction.”

Oceana Canada’s analysis used data from Global Fishing Watch, a tool developed by Oceana in partnership with Google and Skytruth, which uses machine learning to interpret data from various ship tracking sources, like the Automatic Identification System (AIS), to monitor ship speed and positions in North Atlantic right whale conservation areas. The mapping platform is a powerful tool for ocean conservation that has been generously supported by the Government of Canada.

In July 2020, Oceana Canada will publish a full report on vessel speeds in the Cabot Strait throughout the first voluntary slowdown period. Last year, Oceana launched a joint campaign in Canada and the U.S. to reduce risks to North Atlantic right whales. Read our report: The Last 400: Strategies for Saving North Atlantic Right Whales in Canada.

Oceana Canada was established as an independent charity in 2015 and is part of the largest international advocacy group dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana Canada has successfully campaigned to end the shark fin trade, make rebuilding depleted fish populations the law, improve the way fisheries are managed and protect marine habitat. We work with civil society, academics, fishers, Indigenous Peoples and the federal government to return Canada’s formerly vibrant oceans to health and abundance. By restoring Canada’s oceans, we can strengthen our communities, reap greater economic and nutritional benefits and protect our future.

North Atlantic right whales were named for being the “right” whale to hunt because they were often found near shore, swim slowly and tend to float when killed. They were aggressively hunted, and their population dropped from peak estimates of up to 21,000 to perhaps fewer than 100 by the 1920s. After whaling of North Atlantic right whales was banned in 1935, their population increased to as many as 483 individuals in 2010. Unfortunately, that progress has now reversed.

Collisions with ships is one of two leading causes of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. North Atlantic right whales are slow, swimming around 10 kilometres (5 knots) per hour, usually near the water’s surface. They are also dark in color and lack a dorsal fin, making them very difficult to spot. Studies have found that the speed of a ship is a major factor in ship-related collisions with North Atlantic right whales. At normal operating speeds, ships cannot maneuver to avoid them, and North Atlantic right whales swim too slowly to be able to move out of the way. This puts them at great risk of being struck, which can cause deadly injuries from ship strikes or cuts from propellers.

Entanglement in fishing gear is the other leading cause of North Atlantic right whale deaths. Fishing gear from the U.S. and Canada entangles an estimated 100 North Atlantic right whales each year, and about 86 per cent of all North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once. Ropes have been seen wrapped around North Atlantic right whales’ mouths, fins, tails and bodies, which slows them down, making it difficult to swim, reproduce and feed, and can cause death. The lines cut into the whales’ flesh, leading to life-threatening infections, and are so strong that they have severed fins and tails, and cut into bone.
Source: Oceana Canada

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