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

Transport Canada is committed to the protection and conservation of endangered North Atlantic right whales and is taking actions to help protect this iconic species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The measures for the 2023 season were developed with the collaboration of the marine transportation industry, non-governmental organizations, academia, and other government departments.

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Overview of 2023 protection measures

From April 19 to November 15, 2023, Transport Canada established the vessel traffic management measures outlined below to help protect North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Map showing the static zones, the dynamic shipping zones (A, B, C, D and E), the seasonal management areas, the Shediac Valley restricted area, the 20 fathom shallow water protocol line and the voluntary seasonal slowdown zone

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

Each traffic management measure listed in the map's legend is outlined below.

Static zones

A fixed speed restriction for vessels more than 13 metres in length overall was in effect from April 19 to November 15, 2023, in a large area called the static zone that is divided into a northern and a southern zone. These vessels were required to travel at a speed not exceeding 10 knots over the ground in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Other vessels were encouraged to respect this speed limit. Both static zones are shown in the map above (in pink for the northern zone and hatched pink for the southern zone).

Temporary speed restriction in shipping lanes

Temporary speed restrictions of 10 knots over the ground for vessels more than 13 metres in length overall could be enforced in the following shipping lanes:

  • South of Anticosti Island: divided into four dynamic shipping zones (see areas A, B, C and E in green on the map above).
  • North of Anticosti Island: part of the shipping lane labelled as dynamic shipping zone (see area D in green on the map above).

Speed restrictions were activated in the dynamic shipping zones as follows:

When at least one North Atlantic right whale was detected:

  • in any dynamic shipping zones north and/or south of Anticosti Island; or
  • 5 nautical miles south of the dynamic shipping zones or 2.5 nautical miles from the eastern and western edges of these zones.

Each speed restriction was in effect for 15 days beginning on the day of detection. If North Atlantic right whales were not detected during the last 7 days of the 15-day period, the speed restriction was lifted at the end of the period.

When Transport Canada was unable to conduct aerial surveillance or a complete underwater acoustic detections survey for North Atlantic right whales in these zones (usually due to inclement weather or ocean conditions) within the following schedule:

  • a 14-day period at the beginning of the season (from April 19 to May 30, 2023);
  • a 7-day period mid-season; and
  • a 14-day period at the end of the season (from September 20 to November 15, 2023),

a speed restriction was applied to the affected dynamic shipping zone(s) until either another surveillance flight confirmed there were no North Atlantic right whales detected, or that a complete acoustic survey of the zone was carried out. Surveillance flights took place as soon as weather conditions improved and allowed for proper surveillance of North Atlantic right whales.

Weather and sea conditions can impact the safe operation of a vessel. When a speed restriction was in effect, vessels in the static zones and dynamic shipping zones were required to operate at a maximum of 10 knots, unless it was unsafe to do so. Navigational warnings lifting the speed restriction were issued when adverse weather conditions could jeopardize the safety of vessels and mariners.

To subscribe and receive navigational warnings (formerly known as notices to shipping) that are currently in force, visit the Canadian Coast Guard website.

Seasonal management areas 1 and 2

A fixed speed restriction in two seasonal management areas (SMA), located north and south of dynamic shipping zone E, was in effect from April 19 to June 27, 2023, for vessels more than 13 metres in length.

These vessels were required to travel at a speed not exceeding 10 knots over the ground within both seasonal management areas. Vessels were allowed to proceed at safe operational speeds from June 28 to November 15, 2023, unless a North Atlantic right whale was detected. If a North Atlantic right whale was detected, the seasonal management area was subject to a 15-day mandatory speed restriction of 10 knots over the ground. Both seasonal management areas are shown in the map above in dark pink labelled SMA-1 and SMA-2.

Restricted area

In the summer months, a large number of the North Atlantic right whale population is anticipated to gather for feeding and surface activity in and near the Shediac Valley. Since this makes the North Atlantic right whale more vulnerable to vessel collisions, a mandatory restricted area was implemented in this area. Exact coordinates of this zone were confirmed and accessible to mariners through the Ship Safety Bulletin on the protection of the North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the May edition of the Notices to Mariners # 507/23. They were also communicated through a navigational warning and a notice to fish harvesters. The restricted area and its associated restrictions were repealed on September 11, 2023, once visual, acoustic and on water detections indicated that the large aggregation of North Atlantic right whales in the area was dispersing.

When the restricted area was in effect, vessels more than 13 metres in length overall were required to:

  • avoid the area unless they qualified for the exceptions listed under the 2023 Interim Order;
  • if the vessel was excepted, it had to transit the area at a speed not exceeding 8 knots over the ground.

The restricted area is shown in dark blue in the map above.

Voluntary seasonal slowdown zone in the Cabot Strait

To coincide with the North Atlantic right whales’ migration in and out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in large numbers, a voluntary seasonal slowdown was in place from April 19 to June 27, 2023, as well as from September 27 to November 15, 2023.

  • During this period, vessels more than 13 metres in length were asked to voluntarily reduce their speed and not to exceed 10 knots over the ground.
  • Outside the slowdown periods, vessels were to proceed at safe operational speeds.

The Cabot Strait voluntary seasonal slowdown zone is shown above in grey, and spans from the Cabot Strait to the eastern edge of dynamic shipping zone E.

Additional measure

Again this year, a speed limit exemption in waters of less than 20 fathoms was applied to all commercial fishing vessels. In case of a North Atlantic right whale detection in waters of less than 20 fathoms, a Navigational warning (NAVWARN) was issued in addition to the Notice to fish harvesters, enforcing a speed restriction of no more than 10 knots over the ground to all fishing vessels in the northern and southern static zones.

In addition to the speed restriction implemented by Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada also implemented other measures related to the fisheries sector to help protect North Atlantic right whales.

Monitoring and reporting tools

The National Aerial Surveillance Program is Transport Canada’s primary tool to monitor for North Atlantic right whales in the shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island and the restricted area. To complement the aerial surveillance, two underwater acoustic gliders were incorporated into the surveillance platforms to monitor part of the shipping lanes. There was a pilot testing of 4 infrared (IR) cameras overlooking Cabot Strait. These systems were tested for a full year (from mid-June 2022 to July 2023), to assess their capacity to automatically detect North Atlantic right whales on the East Coast in near real-time. If successful, these systems may be added to the existing North Atlantic right whales monitoring platforms in the future years.

Post-season voluntary slowdown period

In late fall, weather conditions are generally less favourable for both navigation and whale-monitoring activities. For this reason, from November 15 to December 31, 2023, Transport Canada asks all vessels to slow down to 10 knots over the ground on a voluntary basis if:

  • North Atlantic right whales are detected in the area; and/or
  • maritime conditions permit vessels to safely operate at this speed.

Compliance and enforcement

The statutory 2023 Interim Order enables the issuance of Navigational Warnings (NAVWARN) imposing speed or navigational restrictions on vessels.

To verify compliance, Transport Canada uses vessel data provided by the Canadian Coast Guard.

If a vessel more than 13 metres in length overall appears to have exceeded the speed limit implemented in any zone or proceeded through the restricted area and is not an excepted vessel under the 2023 Interim Order, our marine safety inspectors will:

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

Aside from the exceptions listed in the 2023 Interim Order, Transport Canada will not grant exemptions in advance. However, if a deviation from the speed restrictions or restricted areas is necessary for safety reasons, the following information must be entered into the bridge logbook:

  • reasons for deviation;
  • speed at which vessel operated;
  • latitude and longitude at time of deviation;
  • time and duration of deviation;
  • master of the vessel shall sign and date the bridge logbook entry.

For any deviation, Transport Canada will review and consider reasons such as:

  • navigating to ensure vessel safety;
  • weather conditions;
  • unforeseeable circumstances; and
  • responding to emergencies.

If it is determined that a vessel did not comply with the North Atlantic right whale speed restrictions or restricted area, vessel owners could face administrative monetary penalties of up to a maximum of CAN $250,000 or could be found liable on summary conviction to a fine of not more than $1,000,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than 18 months, or to both.

If charged with a violation, vessel owners will have 30 days to pay the penalty to the Minister or request the Transportation Appeal Tribunal of Canada to review the facts of the alleged violation or request a reconsideration of the penalty amount.

Compliance update

Transport Canada takes the speed restriction very seriously and examines all potential case of alleged non-compliance.

Numbers from December 11, 2023

Total number of vessel movements monitored in the speed restriction zones as of December 11, 2023: 9340*

*Due to strike action from April 19th to April 30th, 2023, daily number of vessels monitored is missing for this period.

Total number of vessels with speed recorded above the speed limit or entering the restricted area: 328

Compliance Statistics

Status Number of Vessels
Closed 317
Penalties Issued 1
Under Review 10
Total 328

Action taken to date

Since 2017, Transport Canada has been implementing vessel traffic management measures to protect North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. See what actions Transport Canada has taken each year here.

Planning for the future

Transport Canada continuously engages with its partners and stakeholders to acquire and share valuable information to help protect North Atlantic right whales. Assessing lessons learned from the past seasons and finding the right path forward for all is done together.

Roseway Basin’s Area to be Avoided - June 1 to December 31

Mariners with vessels of 300 gross tonnage or more are reminded of the Roseway Basin’s recommended seasonal Area to be Avoided, which was is in effect from June 1 to December 31, 2023, to protect North Atlantic right whales. All mariners were encouraged to avoid this area if possible, to support the recovery of this endangered species. For more information, click here.