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New right whale protection measures announced by Canadian government

  • Canada has announced new protection measures for North Atlantic right whales, which face severe threats to their survival due to human activities off the Atlantic Coast of North America.
  • Most recent right whale deaths have occurred in Canadian waters, which scientists attribute, at least partly, to the fact that the whales have moved into areas where there were no regulations in place to address threats like ship strikes and entanglement.
  • Scientists say the new regulations proposed by the Canadian government are encouraging. Meanwhile, if the Trump Administration gets its way, the United States will be moving in the exact opposite direction on protections for whales in its waters.

Canada has announced new protection measures for North Atlantic right whales, which face severe threats to their survival due to human activities off the Atlantic Coast of North America.

With just around 400 individuals believed to be left in the world, the North Atlantic right whale is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Right whales were once common on both sides of the North Atlantic, but have been effectively wiped out in the eastern North Atlantic. Members of the western population of North Atlantic right whales migrate between calving grounds off the coasts of Florida and Georgia in the United States to their summering grounds in the Gulf of Maine, Bay of Fundy, Scotian Shelf, and Gulf of Saint Lawrence. This migration is proving especially dangerous, as the most serious threat to the whales is death or injury from entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with ships off the east coast of North America, according to the IUCN.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an “unusual mortality event” in 2017, a particularly bad year for North Atlantic right whales in North America that saw 17 deaths as the result of entanglement or ship strike. 12 of those deaths occurred in Canadian waters.

The enhanced protection measures unveiled by Canada’s Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Bernadette Jordan, and Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau, will apply to all ships that are longer than 13 meters (about 43 feet). Many of the new rules to be implemented by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans are designed to help prevent whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear, including new season-long fishing closures in whale aggregation areas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence; temporary fishing closures in the Bay of Fundy; new gear-marking requirements; and additional gear modifications that will be phased in starting in 2021. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans also plans to conduct trials of ropeless fishing gear.

In order to help prevent whales from being struck by ships, the Transport Canada department will re-establish a mandatory speed limit in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence of 10 knots, and will continue to allow ships to travel at “safe operational speeds” in shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island as long as North Atlantic right whales are not present.

Two new seasonal management areas will also be created: a restricted area in the Shediac Valley where ships will be required to reduce their speed to 8 knots, and a trial area in the Cabot Strait where a voluntary speed limit of 10 knots will be in place for parts of the season.

“The North Atlantic right whale is endangered, but together we are working to change that,” Minister Jordan said in a statement. “Since 2017, our government has introduced new measures to protect this species, and we are proud of the progress we have made in implementing them. These new measures build on that work, and are informed by the latest research and technology. We recognize that they are only possible because of the hard work and cooperation of our fish harvesters who have been changing their operations to support our shared goal of protecting this beautiful animal for generations to come.”

Amy Knowlton, Senior Scientist with the Boston-based New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, said that the new regulations are Canada’s attempt to keep up with the ranges of North Atlantic right whales, which are shifting in response to the impacts of global warming. Knowlton added that she’s encouraged by the new protection measures announced by the Canadian government.

“I think that what the Canadians are proposing is progress. I think they’ve tried to learn from what happened in the past couple of years and continued to make improvements to the regulations that they’re implementing,” Knowlton told Mongabay. “Right whales have shifted their distribution and are found in greater numbers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It’s sort of an emerging habitat. They’ve always been there in some numbers, but now we’re seeing up to 150 individuals up there resident for quite a period of time each season. And that’s a lot more than we’ve ever detected there in the past.”

Most recent right whale deaths have occurred in Canadian waters, which Knowlton attributed, at least partly, to the fact that the whales have moved into areas where there were no regulations in place to address threats like ship strikes and entanglement.

“It just goes to show that as right whales move in relation to climate change, addressing these threats broadly and thinking about ways that all areas could be safe for whales is, we think, the way to go,” Knowlton said. “In 2017, we had all the right whale deaths up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, there were 12 deaths up there, unprecedented levels of mortality within a year and also within an area. That got [the Canadian government] recognizing that they had to come to the table and address what was happening, and they’ve done that in a pretty dramatic fashion. So we’re encouraged by the work that they’re doing. And I think they’re slowly, steadily moving towards the idea that they have to address fisheries throughout their range in Canada, not just in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

Meanwhile, if the Trump Administration gets its way, the United States will be moving in the exact opposite direction on protections for whales in its waters, CQ Roll Call reports.

Scientists at NOAA say that, in order to accommodate the Trump Administration’s push for oil exploration and drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, they were ordered to change their official conclusions that the use of seismic air guns to search for oil poses a significant threat to the survival of rare whale species.

Congressman Jared Huffman, chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, told CQ Roll Call: “It really is important that the general public as well as members of Congress understand the unraveling of science that’s happening right now. We’re well on the way to losing it, even at NOAA.” Huffman contended that the Trump Administration is “committing blatant scientific and environmental malpractice at the highest order.”

Researchers at NOAA discovered right whales singing for the first time ever last year. You can hear the right whale “songs” on a July 2019 episode of the Mongabay Newscast:

North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Photo © New England Aquarium.

CITATION

• Cooke, J.G. 2018. Eubalaena glacialis . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T41712A50380891. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-1.RLTS.T41712A50380891.en. Downloaded on 06 March 2020.

Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001

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