Backgrounder: Protecting North Atlantic Right Whales


Map: North Atlantic Right Whale Management Measures 2019
Map: North Atlantic Right Whale Management Measures 2019

North Atlantic right whales are a highly endangered species.
Key threats include vessel strikes and entanglements.

Canada is taking all necessary actions to help protect North Atlantic right whales. With an additional year of scientific analysis, fishing and marine transportation activity and feedback we now have more information available to inform our decision-making for 2019.

The suite of measures and initiatives in place in Atlantic Canada and Quebec remains focused on preventing vessel strikes and entanglement. This includes: 

Slowing down vessels

  • Between April 28 and November 15, a speed restriction to a maximum of 10 knots will be reinstated for vessels 20 metres or more when travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence. The speed restriction zone and dates may be adjusted as needed depending on the presence of right whales in the area and any marine safety issues.
  • Once again, ships will be allowed to travel at safe operational speeds in parts of two shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island, when no whales are in the area. A 15-day mandatory slowdown to 10 knots will be activated within the appropriate shipping lanes when a North Atlantic right whale is spotted. The 15-day slowdown may be extended as needed. 
  • In response to consultations with industry and based on scientific data on whale presence, two changes have been made to the restriction zone this year: 
    • The southeast corner of the speed restriction zone around the Magdalen Islands has been removed. 
    • To help reduce impacts on the marine shipping industry, vessels will be allowed, in the absence of right whale sightings, to travel at safe operational speeds in a larger area north of Anticosti Island, extending to the mainland.
  • Transport Canada will continue to enforce the speed restrictions with support from the Canadian Coast Guard. Vessel owners who fail to comply will face a penalty between $6,000 and $25,000. 

Managing fisheries

Season-long closure area in Atlantic Canada and Quebec

  • A season-long area closure (referred to as the static zone) for snow crab and lobster fisheries (and all other all non-tended fixed-gear fishing) will be in place effective April 28, 2019 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
  • This year’s season-long closure has been adjusted to cover the highest concentration of whales observed during the peak of the fishing season in 2018. While the area for 2019 is a different size and shape (about 63% smaller and more elongated North-to-South than in 2018), the overall protection area remains the same. Any area no longer captured by the season-long closure now fall within the area where temporary closures can occur.

Temporary closure areas in Atlantic Canada and Quebec when right whales are present

  • The areas subject to temporary closures (referred to as the dynamic zone) are subject to automatic closure protocols for snow crab and lobster fisheries (and all other non-tended fixed-gear fisheries) in six areas in Atlantic Canada and Quebec – including two critical habitats in the Roseway and Grand Manan Basins.
  • If one or more right whales are observed in these areas, a defined area around the geographic position of the whale sighted will closed for 15 days. Closures could extend beyond 15 days if whales remain in the area. 
  • Outside designated season-long and temporary closure areas, closures will be considered on a case-by-case basis, with special consideration for sightings of 3 or more whales, or a mother and calf pair.

Provisions for waters shallower than 20 fathoms 

  • Snow crab and lobster fisheries (and all other non-tended fixed-gear fisheries) in waters less than 20 fathoms deep (or a 12-storey building) will be subject to temporary closure protocols only if a right whale is observed in these depths. 

Effective tracking of rope and buoys

  • Sequentially marked buoys and fishery-specific gear-marking, aiming to phase in mandatory gear marking for all fixed-gear fisheries by 2020.

Mandatory reporting for lost gear

  • Licence holders in all fixed-gear fisheries will be required to report lost gear.

Mandatory reporting of interactions between vessels or fishing gear and marine mammals

  • Any accidental contact between marine mammal and a vessel or fishing gear must be reported.

Exploring new fishing technologies and methods

  • Supporting industry trials of “whale safe” gear technologies that minimize or eliminate the risk of entanglement to whales and evaluating pilot projects using scientific expertise.
  • Hosting a Gear Innovation Summit later this year, which will include a stream focused on technological solutions to mitigate ghost gear. 

Marine Mammal Response Program

  • Continuing to develop capacity to deliver safe and effective response to whales and other marine mammals in distress, e.g. entanglement in gear.
  • Providing $1 million per year to support the critical work of our response partners, in particular disentanglement of large whales.
  • Using a variety of policy tools and practices, including a mix of in-house and external expertise to respond to marine mammals in distress.
  • Developing capacity within Indigenous communities to provide response activities.

Marine Mammal Regulations

  • Providing greater protection for marine mammals including Canada’s at-risk whales through the amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations in July 2018.
  • The Marine Mammal Regulations include a requirement for all vessels to respect a minimum approach distance of 100 metres for right whales and 200 metres for a mother and calf. 

Continued monitoring and reporting 

  • A variety of tools to detect whales visually and acoustically, including aircraft and vessel surveillance, as well as detection through hydrophones and glider technologies.
  • Multiple agencies working together to detect right whales, share data, and monitor active fishing areas (including closed areas). 
  • Conducting scientific research to better understand whales and predict their whereabouts.
  • Maintaining science survey efforts with an emphasis on areas not yet adequately surveyed with the purpose of improving knowledge on right whale distribution in Canadian waters. Additional deployment of passive acoustic devices will also allow for data to be collected that will help in this regards. Also, DFO will continue its work on prey availability and factors affecting it.
  • Transport Canada’s National Aerial Surveillance Program will continue to monitor the shipping lanes for right whales. To reduce unnecessary slowdowns on industry:
    • 1 flight in 14 days from April 28 to May 11 will be conducted for the start of the season
    • 1 flight in 7 days, from May 12 to November 1, will be conducted to clear the shipping lanes of whale presence. 
    • 1 flight in 14 days from November 2 to 15 will be conducted as the risk of whale presence is lower during these periods. 
  • Again this year, a remotely piloted aircraft system – or drone – will augment Transport Canada’s surveillance program by conducting trials for detection of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Canada has made significant progress in protecting North Atlantic right whales but there is still work to be done. Canada continues to apply measures considering the best available science and input from Indigenous communities, stakeholders, partners and industry in order to protect these whales from further harm while minimizing possible economic losses for fish harvesters and coastal communities.

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