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 the endangered North Atlantic right whales. We are taking actions to help protect this iconic species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The  measures for the 2021 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 2021 protection measures

From April 28 to November 15, 2021, Transport Canada implemented  the following measures to help 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, 2021, a fixed speed restriction was in place in a large area known as the static zone, divided into a northern and a southern zone.
  2. Shown in green, temporary speed restrictions were implemented in dynamic shipping zones within the shipping lanes when a North Atlantic right whale was detected in or near the shipping lanes. These are labelled as dynamic shipping zones A, B, C, D and E on the map.

  3. Shown in dark pink, north and south of dynamic shipping zone E are seasonal management areas 1 and 2 where a fixed speed restriction was in place from April 28 to June 29 only. For the remainder of the season until November 15, temporary speed restrictions would have been  implemented in seasonal management areas, should any North Atlantic right whale have be detected there.

  4. Shown in grey, a trial voluntary slowdown zone of 10 knots over the ground was implemented spanning from Cabot Strait to the eastern edge of dynamic shipping zone E at the beginning and end of the season.

  5. Shown in dark blue, was the location of a mandatory restricted area, in and near the Shediac Valley, aimed at protecting a large number of North Atlantic right whales that were anticipated to gather in this area in the late spring-early summer. When it was in force, vessels more than 13 metres in length were prohibited from entering the restricted area, with certain exceptions. Excepted vessels could not  exceed eight knots over the ground when transiting in the restricted area. The restricted area came into force when 80% of the Shediac area became closed to fishing for the season, as per the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’s right whale closure protocol. The restricted area was lifted on August 27, 2021.
  6. A speed limit exemption in waters of less than 20 fathoms applied to all commercial fishing vessels.

Weather and sea conditions can impact the safe operation of a vessel. When the 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 is 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.

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

Static zones

A speed restriction was in effect from April 28 to November 15, 2021, for vessels more than13 metres in length. 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 also encouraged to respect this speed limit. The northern and southern static speed restriction zones are shown in the pink areas in the map below.

Temporary speed restriction in shipping lanes

Temporary speed restrictions of 10 knots over the ground for vessels more than 13 metres in length were activated in the following shipping lanes:

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

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; and
  • 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. 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 clear the zones of North Atlantic right whale presence (usually due to inclement weather) using aerial surveillance or underwater acoustic detection within:

  • 14 day period at the beginning of the season (from April 28 to May 25, 2021);
  • a 7-day period mid-season; and
  • a 14 day period at the end of the season (from September 22 to November 15, 2021).

a speed restriction applied to the dynamic shipping zone(s) until another surveillance flight confirms there were no North Atlantic right whales detected. Surveillance flights took place as soon as weather conditions improve and allow for proper monitoring of North Atlantic right whales.

Seasonal management areas

Two seasonal management areas (SMA) were implemented:

  • North of dynamic shipping zone E (SMA-1 on the map)
  • South of dynamic shipping zone E (SMA-2 on the map)

A speed restriction was in effect from April 28 to June 29, 2021, for vessels more than13 metres in length. These vessels were required to travel at a speed not exceeding 10 knots over the ground within seasonal management areas 1 and 2. Vessels were allowed to proceed at safe operational speeds from June 30 to November 15, 2021, 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.

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 susceptible 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 monthly edition of the Notices to Mariners # 405/21. They were also communicated through a navigational warning and a notice to fish harvesters.

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

Trial voluntary slowdown in Cabot Strait

To coincide with the North Atlantic right whales migration in and out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a voluntary slowdown was put in place from April 28 to June 29, 2021, as well as from September 29 to November 15, 2021.

  • 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 period, vessels were able to proceed at safe operational speeds.
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 trial voluntary slowdown zone

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 trial voluntary slowdown zone

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

Voluntary slowdown period

In late fall, weather conditions are generally less favourable for both navigation and whale-monitoring flights. For this reason, from November 15 to December 31 2021, we will ask all vessels to slow down to 10 knots over ground 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 Interim Order for the protection of the North Atlantic right whales (Eubalenea glacialis) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2021, enables the issuance of Navigational Warnings (NAVWARN) imposing speed or navigational restrictions on vessels.
To verify compliance, we use vessel data provided by the Canadian Coast Guard.

If a vessel more than 13 metres in length appears to have exceeded the speed limit implemented in any zone or proceeded through the restricted area and is not an excepted vessel as per the exception list under the Interim Order for the protection of the North Atlantic right whales (Eubalenea glacialis) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2021, 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 log book and the verification of its content with the master.

Aside from the exceptions listed in the Interim Order for the protection of the North Atlantic right whales (Eubalenea glacialis) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2021, we 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 and/or a penal sanction under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001. 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 non-compliance.

Total number of vessel movements monitored in the speed restriction zones since the start of the season: 9349

Total number of vessels with speed recorded above the speed limit or entering the restricted area: 594

Compliance Statistics

Status

Number of Vessels

Closed

581

Penalties Issued

0

Under Review

13

Total

594

Actions taken to date

2017

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.

2018

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. Dynamic shipping zones A, B, C and D were introduced to facilitate commercial traffic passage through the North Atlantic right whales speed control zone.

There were no documented fatalities of North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters in 2018.

2019

Based on consultations with industry and on scientific data, two changes were made to the static and dynamic shipping zones of 2018, which took effect on April 28, 2019:

  • The southeast corner of the speed restriction zone, around the Magdalen Islands was removed.
  • To help reduce impacts on the marine transportation industry, vessels were allowed, 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.

In response to the deaths of North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters, the Government of Canada took further concrete actions to help protect these marine mammals:

  • 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 returned to a dynamic approach in managing the dynamic shipping zones, effective August 2, 2019.
  • On July 8, 2019, the Government of Canada announced new vessel traffic management measures to protect the North Atlantic right whale. These additional measures included:
    • slowing down more ships to include those measuring more than 13 metres in length;
    • expanding the zones in which speed restrictions apply (extending the static zone to the east and adding dynamic shipping zone E);
    • dividing the mandatory static zone into northern and southern zones;
    • expanding the buffer zone around the dynamic shipping zones; and
    • increasing aerial surveillance.

2020

In 2020, to better protect the North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters, we further enhanced the protection measures by implementing:

  • A new trial voluntary slowdown in Cabot Strait to coincide with the bulk of the North Atlantic right whale migration in and out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence;
  • New seasonal management areas, which are additional speed restriction areas located north and south of dynamic shipping zone E;
  • A new mandatory restricted area located in and near the Shediac Valley to better protect right whales where a large number of them are anticipated to be present in this area during the summer months; and
  • Incorporated the use of a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (or drone) and an underwater acoustic glider into our surveillance and monitoring plans for part of the 2020 season

Planning for the future

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