Conservation group calls for mandatory speed limits for ships to protect right whales
A conservation group that tries to prevent ships from hitting endangered whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence says new satellite data indicates that ships passing through the Cabot Strait routinely ignore voluntary speed limits.
Oceana Canada released the figures Thursday and called on Ottawa to impose mandatory speed limits to protect the declining number of North Atlantic right whales, which began arriving in the Gulf last month as part of their spring migration. .
But the federal Department of Transport and a group representing the shipping industry dispute the numbers, saying they don’t reflect what’s really happening on the water.
Oceana, an independent advocacy group, says for the second year in a row it found that the majority of ships navigating the strait exceeded the voluntary speed limit of 10 knots in the first week it was in effect.
“It’s a bit obvious, but voluntary measures tend not to be as effective as mandatory measures,” Kim Elmslie, Oceana Canada campaign manager, said in an interview Wednesday.
“We really want [Transport Canada] to go to the next step. It must be mandatory. “
On the brink of extinction
Since June 2017, an unusually high number of North Atlantic right whales have died, reducing the population to less than 400 animals – a number that has some experts warning the whales are on the verge of extinction.
Collisions with vessels and tangled fishing gear are the cause of most right whale deaths.
Over the past four years, the Canadian government has imposed a series of measures to protect whales, including periodic fisheries closures and mandatory speed limits that apply to much of the Gulf – but not the Strait of Pooch.
At least 34 North Atlantic right whales died between 2017 and 2021, including 21 in Canadian waters.
Using data from Global Fishing Watch, a public satellite tracking website, Oceana found that 64% of transits through the strait – 65 out of 101, involving 58 vessels – did not follow slowdown rules. volunteer from April 28 to May 4. the highest speed observed was 17.4 knots.
Elmslie said the results represent a worse result than last year, the first year of the voluntary pilot program. During the same week in 2020, 55% of transits did not meet the limit, Oceana said.
Elmslie cited an April 2013 study that found that slowing vessel speeds to 10 knots or less can reduce the lethality of a right whale collision by up to 90%. The US study was prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and published in the journal Ecosphere.
Transport Canada disagrees
Transport Canada released a statement on Wednesday disputing Oceana’s claims.
The federal department said its satellite data shows that in the week cited by Oceana, 46.5% of ships passing through the Cabot Strait exceeded the speed limit, well below the 64% reported by Oceana.
Additionally, the Federal Department said that in the first three weeks of the 2021 season, 52.4% of vessels were on target, compared to 46.3% in the first three weeks of the 2020 season.
The ministry said its Canadian Coast Guard data offers greater accuracy than publicly available data sources used by Oceana. And he pointed out that Oceana’s figures did not take into account the fact that for reasons of boating safety all speed limits are lifted in bad weather.
“The Oceana approach does not take into account the reasons why a vessel may not have been able to participate, for example when weather, safety, vessel schedules, logistics, delivery schedules, contractual obligations, etc. may not have allowed participation, “the statement said. mentionned.
“The decision to move the Cabot Strait slowdown from voluntary to mandatory will require assessing more than just participation rates.”
Still, Elmslie argued that a turnout of just over 50 percent is nothing to brag about.
Regarding the areas that have mandatory speed limits, Transport Canada confirmed that during the 2020 season there was a compliance rate of 99.9 in these areas, where 8,784 vessel movements were follow-ups. Seven fines were imposed for speeding violations.
Since the start of the 2021 season, of the 1,235 vessel movements tracked in the Gulf, 79 have been recorded above 10.0 knots, and five fines are under review, the ministry said Thursday.
Expensive and complicated
Michael Broad, president of the Shipping Federation of Canada, said Coast Guard figures clearly show that cargo masters are doing their best to comply with the voluntary limit.
“Overall, the industry has shown a tremendous commitment to protecting whales,” Broad said in an interview.
“It’s an expensive and complicated slowing down. When bad weather comes, ships can’t always meet this slowing limit. To steer the ship in bad weather and keep things on a level keel, you often have to increase speed. . “
The federation represents shipowners, operators and agents who work for more than 200 shipping companies around the world.
“Not everyone is participating, but most want to participate,” said Broad. “And Transport Canada numbers show an increase in participation.”
The voluntary limit, which applies to vessels over 13 meters, was to remain in effect this year from April 28 to June 29 and from September 29 to November 15, 2021.
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