Backgrounder: Protecting North Atlantic right whales

North Atlantic right whales are an endangered species. There are approximately 400 remaining. Key threats include collisions with vessels and entanglements in fishing gear.

The Government of Canada is taking significant action to protect North Atlantic right whales. The 2020 measures, which would apply from April to November 2020 in the waters in Atlantic Canada and around Quebec, remain focused on two main issues: preventing collisions with vessels, and entanglement with fishing gear.

Managing vessel traffic

Vessel traffic management measures for 2020 aim to more efficiently target vessel traffic risks to North Atlantic right whales over the course of the season, especially as they migrate in and out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in spring and fall, without jeopardizing the safety and security of mariners. Building on experience from previous years, the measures incorporate an additional year of scientific analysis of whale distribution, fishing and marine transportation patterns, feedback from stakeholders, and a more robust and varied approach to surveillance.

Vessel traffic management measures in 2020:

1. Measures carried over from 2019:

  • Continuing the mandatory speed restriction for vessels longer than 13 metres to a maximum of 10 knots when travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence starting on April 28.
  • Continuing to allow vessels to travel at safe operational speeds in parts of the shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island when no North Atlantic right whales are detected in the area. If one North Atlantic right whale is detected in one of the designated shipping zones, a mandatory slowdown to 10 knots will be triggered for 15 days from the last sighting in the zone.
  • Continuing the use of the National Aerial Surveillance Program to monitor for North Atlantic right whales in the shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island.
  • Continuing to issue fines to vessels that are non-compliant with the mandatory vessel traffic management measures that will be put in place for the 2020 season.

2. Additional measures for 2020:

  • Creating two seasonal management areas east of the mandatory speed restriction zone. Vessels longer than 13 metres travelling through it from April 28 to June 30 will be subject to a 10 knot speed restriction in order to provide more protection during a time when larger numbers of North Atlantic right whales are migrating into the Gulf of Lawrence.  
  • From July 1 to November 15, vessels will be permitted to travel through the two seasonal management areas at safe operational speeds unless a North Atlantic right whale is detected. If a North Atlantic right whale is detected, a mandatory speed restriction will be put in place for 15 days.
  • Creating a trial voluntary slowdown of 10 knots for all vessels longer than 13 metres traveling through the Cabot Strait from April 28 to June 15, and once again from October 1 to November 15, to provide more protection during times when larger numbers of North Atlantic right whales are migrating in or out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
  • Creating a mandatory restricted area to protect larger numbers of North Atlantic right whales aggregating in the Shediac Valley, located east of New Brunswick and north-west of Prince Edward Island, requiring that all vessels longer than 13 metres avoid the area, or, if they must travel through it, to reduce their speed to 8 knots. Timing and exact coordinates of this zone will be confirmed once North Atlantic right whales start to aggregate in the Shediac Valley in greater numbers mid-summer.
  • Collaborating with key stakeholders on voluntary measures, such as speed reductions and/or marine mammal observers on board, when North Atlantic right whales are observed in specific areas, including but not limited to the Cabot Strait, Bay of Fundy, Placentia Bay, and between Prince Edward Island and the Magdalen Islands.
  • Incorporating the use of a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (or drone) and an underwater acoustic glider into surveillance and monitoring plans for part of the season.

Managing fisheries

Fisheries management measures in 2020:

  • Introducing a new season-long closure protocol in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Unlike the previous pre-set (static) season-long closure area, season-long closures will now be applied to areas where whales are detected more than once in 15 days. Impacted areas will remain closed until November 15, 2020.
  • Expanding the temporary closure area to include the Bay of Fundy, inclusive of the North Atlantic right whale critical habitat area in the Grand Manan Basin.
  • Relying on acoustic underwater technology (hydrophones) to confirm the presence of whales in the temporary closure areas, in addition to visual sightings from aircraft and vessels.
  • Imposing new gear marking requirements for all non-tended fixed gear fisheries, including lobster and crab, in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. This will allow us to distinguish between Canadian and U.S entanglements and will help us to improve our fisheries management measures.

These new measures will take effect as soon as the 2020 Gulf of St. Lawrence crab fishery opens.

Throughout 2020, we will be working with industry, fishery by fishery, to identify gear solutions for preventing injury to right whales. Many innovative approaches to addressing these areas of gear modification were discussed during the February 11-12, 2020 Gear Innovation Summit in Halifax, N.S. These measures may include:

  • A requirement for non-tended fixed gear fisheries to include weak rope or weak breaking points, to become mandatory by the end of 2021; and,
  • Requirements for maximum rope diameters of 5/8 inches, sinking rope between pots and traps, and reductions in vertical and floating rope, to become mandatory after 2021.

We will also continue our comprehensive efforts from previous years, such as:

  • Maintaining temporary closures in the North Atlantic right whale critical habitat areas (Grand Manan Basin and Roseway Basin);
  • Implementing case-by-case measures to address sightings of three or more whales or a mother and calf anywhere in Atlantic Canada and Quebec that are not subject to temporary closure areas and critical habitat.
  • Maintaining targeted provisions for waters shallower than 20 fathoms (36.5 metres or 120 feet);
  • Maintaining focused surveillance on the water, under water and in the air to detect whales;
  • Continuing to monitor vessel locations and movement to ensure compliance with the measures;
  • Maintaining measures to minimize the amount of rope in the water and to more effectively track rope and buoys;
  • Maintaining mandatory reporting for lost gear and interactions with marine mammals; and,
  • Supporting industry trials of innovative fishing technologies, including authorizing the use of ropeless fishing gear in some closed areas this year, and other methods to prevent and/or mitigate whale entanglement.

A contract is now in place with a third party icebreaker to open local harbours for spring fishing activities in northern New Brunswick. An early start to the 2020 snow crab fishery will diminish the possibility of whale interactions with fishing gear, while also maximizing the amount of harvesting activity that can occur before the whales arrive in our waters.

The Government of Canada measures for 2020 take into account the best available science and input from industry, provincial governments, Indigenous communities, academia, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders, including partners in the United States.

Read the news release: Government of Canada unveils 2020 North Atlantic right whales protection measures

February 2020