Protecting North Atlantic right whales from collisions with ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Transport Canada is committed to the protection and recovery of the endangered North Atlantic right whales. We are taking actions to protect this species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

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Overview of protection measures

This season, Transport Canada is using two measures to protect North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence:

  1. Shown in pink in the map below, from April 28 to November 15, 2019, a fixed speed restriction is in place (the speed restriction applied to vessels 20 meters or more until July 8, 2019, and now applies to vessels above 13 meters) in a large area known as the speed restriction zones or the northern and southern static zones in which:
    • vessels above 13 meters length over all cannot travel over 10 knots (except where required for safety reasons)
    • other vessels are encouraged to respect this limit
  2. Shown in green, temporary speed restrictions are implemented in designated areas within the shipping lanes when a North Atlantic right whale is spotted in or near the shipping lane. These are identified as dynamic shipping sectors A, B, C, D and E on the map.

Weather and sea conditions can impact the safe operation of a vessel. Vessels in the static zones and dynamic shipping zones, when the speed restriction is in effect, are required to operate at a maximum of 10 knots only when safe to do so. Navigational warnings lifting the speed restriction will be issued to that effect for adverse weather conditions jeopardizing the safety of vessels.

For navigational warnings (formerly known as notices to shipping) currently in force, visit the Canadian Coast Guard website.

In addition to the speed restriction implemented by our department, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has also implemented other measures to help protect North Atlantic right whales.

Static protected area

A speed restriction was in force from April 28 to July 7 , 2019, for vessels 20 meters length over all or longer to a maximum of 10 knots when travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence. From July 8 and until November 15 , 2019, the speed restriction currently in force is for vessels above 13 meters length over all. This speed restriction zone is shown in the pink areas in the map below.

Temporary speed restriction in shipping lanes

There are two shipping lanes where speed restrictions can be activated:

  1. South of Anticosti Island: divided into four speed restriction zones (see areas A, B, C and E on the map)
  2. North of Anticosti Island: part of the shipping lane consists of a speed restriction zone (see area D)
Dynamic shipping sectors
Figure – Northern and Southern Static Zones and Dynamic Shipping Zones

This map is for visual representation only and is not to be used for navigation or enforcement.

Speed restrictions will be in effect in the shipping sectors as follows:

Two distinct situations will activate a speed restriction:

  1. When at least one North Atlantic right whale is seen in:
    • dynamic shipping zones north and/or south of Anticosti Island
    • a 5-nautical-mile buffer area adjacent to the dynamic shipping zone; OR
  2. If a North Atlantic right whale is seen within 5 nautical miles of a border between zones, a speed restriction will be activated in the adjacent zone.

Each speed restriction will be in force for 15 days. If North Atlantic right whales are not seen with surveillance flights during the 15-day period, the speed restriction will be lifted at the end of the period.

When unable to complete one aerial surveillance flight within a 7-day period, usually due to weather, the speed restriction will apply to the dynamic shipping zone(s) until another surveillance flight confirms there are no North Atlantic right whales present. Surveillance flights take place as soon as weather conditions improve to allow for proper surveillance of the North Atlantic right whales.

Voluntary slowdown period

Weather conditions are less favourable for both navigation and whale-observation flights from late fall into early spring. During this time, we ask all vessels to slowdown to 10 knots if:

  • North Atlantic right whales are confirmed to be in the area, and/or
  • maritime conditions permit vessels to safely operate at this speed

Compliance and enforcement

To verify compliance, we use vessel data provided by the Canadian Coast Guard.

If a vessel above 13 meters length over all appears to have gone over the 10 knot speed limit, our marine safety inspectors will:

  • review information from the Canadian Coast Guard;
  • seek additional evidence by contacting the vessel's master. This will allow for the collection of more data including information from the vessel’s log book and the verification of its content with the master.

We will not grant exemptions, but we will consider factors such as:

  • operational decisions made by the vessel’s master to maintain vessel safety
  • weather and navigational conditions
  • decisions made in response to emergencies

If it is determined that a vessel did not comply with the North Atlantic right whale speed restrictions, vessel owners could be fined from $6,000 to $25,000.

If we issue a fine, vessel owners will have 30 days to pay the penalty or to ask the Transportation Appeal Tribunal of Canada to review the facts of the alleged violation or the amount of the penalty.

Compliance update

Transport Canada takes the speed restriction very seriously and examines all potential cases of non-compliance. Out of 491 cases reported between April 28 and December 10, 2019, 19 penalties were issued and 3 cases are under review. All other cases have been closed. Approximately 5279 vessel transits occurred during the period.

Total number of vessel transits monitored in the speed restriction zone: 5279

Total number of vessels with speed recorded above 10 knots: 491

Compliance Statistics

Status Number of Vessels
Closed 469
Penalties Issued 19
Under Review 3
Total 491

Actions taken to date

On August 11, 2017, the Government of Canada implemented speed restrictions for vessels 20 metres or longer to a maximum of 10 knots when travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In 2018, we took action for a second year to minimize risks for navigational safety and North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

There were no documented fatalities of North Atlantic right whale in Canadian waters in 2018. The North Atlantic right whale measures put in place through effective collaboration with the marine industry, non-governmental organizations, academia, Indigenous peoples and federal departments was key to this success.

For 2019, the mandatory speed restrictions came into force on April 28, 2019 and will stay in place until November 15, 2019, but can be extended should whales continue to be present.

In response to consultations with industry, and based on scientific data, we have made two changes to the restriction zones this year (see map above), which took effect on April 28, 2019:

  • We removed the southeast corner of the speed restriction zone, around the Magdalen Islands.
  • To help reduce impacts on the marine shipping industry, we are allowing vessels, in the absence of North Atlantic right whale sightings, to travel at safe speeds in a larger area north of Anticosti Island, extending to the mainland.

Moreover, in response to the recent deaths in June and July 2019 of 8 North Atlantic right whales, the Government of Canada took further concrete actions to help protect the North Atlantic right whales:

  • On June 26, 2019, Transport Canada implemented an interim precautionary measure of a mandatory speed restriction of 10 knots, for vessels of 20 metres or more in length travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence, in parts of two shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island. Based on the extensive aerial surveillance in July and the absence of North Atlantic right whales reported in the Dynamic Shipping Zones, Transport Canada has decided to reinstate the dynamic approach in the Dynamic Shipping Zones, effective August 1, 2019.
  • On July 8, 2019, the Government of Canada announced new measures to protect the North Atlantic right whale. These additional measures include slowing down more ships – those measuring greater than 13 metres in length over all expanding the zones in which speed restrictions apply (extending the static zone to the east and adding dynamic shipping zone E), increasing aerial surveillance, and funding for initiatives to enhance the Marine Mammal Response Program.

Planning for the future

Transport Canada continuously engages with the marine industry, non-governmental organizations, academia, Indigenous peoples and other federal departments to acquire and share valuable information. Together we are assessing lessons learned from the past seasons and finding the right path forward for all.

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