Dwindling numbers of orcas are seen in the waters off Vancouver Island.
Dwindling numbers of orcas are seen in the waters off Vancouver Island.

The mounting toll of right whale deaths this summer on the East Coast plus the decline of the endangered killer whales, or orcas, on the West Coast have spurred various maritime industry and government initiatives in Canada and the United States. The impacts of commercial shipping and fishing are under the microscope.
To address the sudden increase of right whale deaths in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada’s federal government recently ordered vessels of 20 metres or more in length to reduce their speeds to a maximum of 10 knots while sailing through these waters. This applies notably to the ocean container and bulk vessels active in the St. Lawrence trades. Faster vessels attain average speeds of up to 25 knots.

The Knotty Problem of Right Whale Deaths

Ten right whales have died since June in the Gulf, and three others in U.S. waters. Preliminary findings suggest some of the mammals have died from blunt trauma caused by ship collisions or from entanglements in fishing gear. Latest reports indicate there are still 500 North Atlantic right whales still alive, including around 80-100 presently in the Gulf. The speed limits remain in place until the whales have migrated from the areas where they annually summer off Atlantic Canada and New England.

It was on August 11 that Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced temporary measures aimed at curbing further whale deaths. The measures are enforced by the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada, and non-compliance is subject to fines of up to $25,000. The area involved is the western Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Quebec North Shore to just north of Prince Edward Island.

“I think that Canadians and the shipping industry and the fishing industry recognize that this is something most unusual and we need to take measures,” Garneau said.

Further measures could include temporary fishery closures and shipping-lane adjustments. The Fisheries Department had previously taken such steps as shortening the snow-crab season and asking fishermen in the Gulf to report whale sightings.

“These recent whale deaths are deeply troubling to our members,” commented Bruce Burrows, President of the Ottawa-based Chamber of Marine Commerce, adding that it was critical for industry and government to continue to work closely together “to develop solutions based on strong science that both protect marine wildlife and minimize economic impacts.”

The Ottawa-based CMC estimates the speed restrictions could result in delays of up to seven hours for some vessel voyages. This has a direct impact on carrier operating costs – and seemingly not all shipping lines have been enthralled.

Ships sailing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have reportedly experienced a rising number of collisions with right whales. (Photo: Louis Rhéaume)
Ships sailing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have reportedly experienced a rising number of collisions with right whales. (Photo: Louis Rhéaume)

While there has been no public protest or mitigating action from North Atlantic ocean carriers, Oceanex, a Newfoundland shipping line which operates a regular container/roro service between St. John’s and Montreal decided to introduce a “temporary marine protection surcharge” to offset higher fuel and labour costs. In cooperation with counterparts at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, officials at the U.S. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration have also launched a sweeping investigation of the cause of whale deaths with a view to determining future responses.

Vessel Noise Effect on Orcas

On the West Coast, 53 marine shipping industry organizations have committed to participate in a voluntary study, the first of its kind, to focus on the relationship between slower vessel speeds, underwater noise levels and effects on the endangered southern resident killer whales, or orcas. According to latest estimates, there are today only 78 still living icons of the Pacific Northwest native to the waters off Vancouver Island compared with 98 in 1995.

Since August 7 and until October 6, 2017, the speed of participating vessels is being reduced through the waters in Haro Strait, when it is feasible and safe to do so. Haro Strait is located between Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula and San Juan Island and is an important summer feeding area for the southern resident killer whale population. Approximately 900 deep sea vessels will transit Haro Strait during the study period.

During the research trial, vessels are asked to navigate over underwater listening stations, also known as hydrophones, at a speed of 11 knots, which is slower than typical deep-sea vessel operating speeds. The hydrophones monitor ambient and vessel underwater noise, as well as the presence of whales, and automated vessel tracking will be used to monitor vessel speed. “Industry’s commitment to this voluntary research trial is a clear demonstration of the collective focus we have on ensuring a healthy marine environment, and we greatly appreciate our partners’ support,” said Robin Silvester, President and CEO of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

Existing scientific evidence indicates that underwater noise from vessels can interfere with killer whale echolocation clicks, calls and whistles, inhibiting the ability to hunt, navigate and communicate. Existing research also suggests that vessels operating at lower speeds typically generate less underwater noise.

The study is planned and coordinated through the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority-led Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program.

in addition to a committee that includes representatives from B.C. Coast Pilots, BC Ferries, the Vancouver-based Chamber of Shipping, Cruise Line International Association North West and Canada, Hapag-Lloyd, Holland America, the Shipping Federation of Canada, the Pacific Pilotage Authority, Transport Canada and Washington State Ferries.