Protecting North Atlantic Right Whales

Collaboration between industry, scientists and the government is paying off to protect North Atlantic Right whales. So what’s the next frontier for whale detection?

The efforts to avoid collisions between ships and North Atlantic right whales last year have been deemed successful with no known vessel strikes within Canadian waters.

“I applaud the shipping industry’s efforts, which I know come at a cost,” says Moira Brown, the Canadian Whale Institute’s chief scientist. “Based on the mammals photographed, about half of the estimated 400 existing right whales populated the Gulf of St. Lawrence last year with no known collisions – a really positive result.”


Canada implemented the slowdown measures in the Gulf of St Lawrence last April 28th through November 15th, 2018, to prevent a repeat of the previous year when 16 right whales had been found dead – 12 of them in Canadian waters. Many of the deaths were attributed to fishing gear entanglements and some also to vessel collisions.

Last year’s measures set a speed limit of 10 knots for vessels 20 metres or longer over a static zone that covered most of the Canadian waters off New Brunswick to the Magdalen Islands and from Prince Edward Island to Quebec’s North Shore.

Within the static zone, four dynamic zones were delineated in alignment with existing shipping lanes – three south of Anticosti Island and one to the north.

Vessels only had to slow to 10 knots in these zones if a right whale had been detected or if Transport Canada could not conduct two surveillance flights within a seven-day period. When surveillance wasn’t possible, a slowdown was instituted for 15 days as a precaution.


No whales were spotted within the dynamic zones. However, slowdowns were in effect within one or more of the dynamic zones for approximately 20 per cent of the time last year mainly because surveillance could not take place due to weather. The Chamber of Marine Commerce and other maritime organizations hope this 20 percent can be reduced.


Improving Monitoring of Whales

“We’re delighted there were no known collisions last year,” says Paul Topping, the Chamber of Marine Commerce’s director of Regulatory and Environmental Affairs. “However, we want to see monitoring improve so that when we slow down it’s because whales are present. Slowing down comes at a significant cost and challenge, as vessels run on schedules to supply Quebec’s North Shore communities, deliver bulk commodities, or fulfil cruise itineraries.”

The slowdowns not only make journeys longer but can launch a domino effect. “If a ship misses scheduled time to take on a pilot, meet stevedores or other services, the crew encounters more delays, as well as likely late fees and overtime charges,” Topping explains.

“Oceanex estimated its losses for the 2017 season when a constant 10 knots were in force throughout the region at $3.4 million, and that’s just one company,” he adds.

Transport Canada conducted 325 flights between last April and November 26 to survey right whales – 222 of them over Quebec’s Gulf of St. Lawrence region and 123 over the Atlantic. The majority flew over the dynamic zones.

“We had 23 days last year when the weather prevented aerial surveillance,” recalls Louis Armstrong, Chief – Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Aircraft Services Group at Transport Canada. “Additionally, there were 13 days when the weather hampered patrols of dynamic zones A, B, C and/or D.”

Photo Credit: Nick Hawkins
Testing New Technologies Surveillance

Transport Canada tested a drone for a few weeks last year as one possible way to enhance surveillance. “The intention is to continue the testing over whale aggregations this summer to refine the detection algorithm,” Michelle Sanders, Director, Clean Water Policy, Environmental Policy Group, Transport Canada, relates.

“A more precise algorithm would reduce the literally thousands of images taken by the drone that had to be reviewed upon retrieval.”

Drones could be operated on many of the rough weather days that ground aircraft.

“They can also detect whales when there are large whitecaps because their camera faces straight down over the water rather than at the oblique angle that we have aboard a plane,” Armstrong says.

In fair weather, regular surveillance over Quebec and Maritime waters is assured by Transport Canada’s purchase of a new Dash-8 with the latest detection technology. “This addition to our existing fleet of three this season ensures flights will continue even if a plane is called away for surveillance elsewhere or requires maintenance,” Armstrong says.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada continues to collaborate with university scientists in testing acoustic detection technologies. Gliders equipped with voice recognition software can ride water currents in most any weather.

Improved gliders can now track whales 100 kilometres (60 miles) away at up to 200 metre (656-foot) depths. Lithium batteries allow them to operate for up to three months with sufficient power to surface and transmit data. However, they cost about $150,000 each. Further testing is also being done to ensure they are capable of detecting right whales in particular because the species doesn’t vocalize as much as others.

Stationery hydrophones are likewise being considered, but their limited range attached to buoys tend to restrict their use to narrower channels. “The cable costs may also be substantive given the necessary distance to a shoreline and the need to run cables along a seafloor or riverbed to prevent mammal entanglements,” Topping adds.

The $167.4 million in funding announced last June as part of Canada’s five-year Whale Initiative will go towards continuing to improve the research about endangered whales and their surveillance. Transport Canada is also using a small portion of its $85 million to research the economic impacts of the slowdowns. “The first phase, completed in February, is more of a case study examining supply chain impacts to communities, including any indirect effects, for example, on tourism,” Sanders shares. “The second phase is a longer term cost-benefit analysis of the measures that will be more of a full economic analysis.”

Photo Credit: Nick Hawkins
2019 Protection Measures Announced

On Feb. 7, Transport Minister Marc Garneau made a joint announcement with Jonathan Wilkinson, the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Coast Guard, regarding the 2019 measures to protect right whales.

The measures continue to protect right whales while permitting ships to maintain their schedules and fuel efficiency. The protective measures are being implemented between the same dates as last year, but only one surveillance flight a week will be required to keep a dynamic zone open for most of the season. A single flight will be required within the first two weeks and later the last two weeks of the season for the zones to stay open. The change takes into account the data indicating the presence of lower numbers of whales at the beginning and end of the season.

Changes were also made to the static zone’s boundaries. The southeast corner will be adjusted to permit the open passage of vessels serving the western Magdalen Islands. In the northeast region, dynamic zone D will be extended north of Anticosti Island to Quebec’s North Shore.

While maintaining whale protection, the changes are expected to reduce unnecessary speed restrictions and provide vessels with greater flexibility in resupplying Quebec’s North Shore communities and the western Magdalen Islands.

Bruce Burrows, the Chamber’s president, welcomed the adjustments. “We are pleased that the Canadian government has made some refinements that will increase delivery efficiencies to communities that depend on marine transport, while continuing to protect the endangered right whales,” he said. “It goes to show the kind of results that can be achieved when government, industry and the scientific community work together.”

By Julie Gedeon