Canada Takes Another Step to Protect Right Whales from Ship Collisions

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HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA & BOSTON, MA - October 10, 2007

Map of conservation areas to protect endangered whales

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Ships and whales are both behemoths of the sea, but they often do collide, with usually tragic results for many endangered whale species. Wednesday, the Canadian government took its second step in four years to move ships away from the highest use areas of the North Atlantic right whale - its most critically endangered large whale species. Government officials announced that the Roseway Basin, an area about 30 nautical miles south of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia, has been designated a recommended “Area to be Avoided” for ships on a seasonal basis from June 1 to December 31. With an estimated population of only 400, right whales congregate in the Roseway Basin each year to feed and find mates.

This designation is the third time in four years that federal officials in either Canada or the U.S. have moved ships away from heavily used whale habitat areas. This past July, American officials relocated the shipping lanes that approach Boston and which also cross the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, America’s only whale feeding sanctuary. That move within the sanctuary’s boundaries not only better protects right whales but also endangered humpback and finback whales, which are observed by hundreds of thousands of whale watchers annually from Massachusetts ports.

This trend was begun in 2003 when Canadian officials moved the shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy, located between Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Known for its world record daily tides, the Bay of Fundy is also a major summer feeding site for right whales. That effort was spearheaded by an unlikely partnership between whale scientists from the Boston-based New England Aquarium and officials from Irving Oil, which had many ships traversing the area. Over several years, data was analyzed to accurately document the concentrations of whales, and a proposal was developed to move the shipping lanes without compromising the safety of the ships. What was particularly significant was the recognition on the part of both conservationists and shippers that no one wants to kill whales accidentally, but that some prudent measures needed to be taken.

Moira Brown, a senior right whale scientist with the New England Aquarium and the Canadian Whale Institute, was one the principals in developing and guiding the two Canadian shipping changes through a years-long process. She brought together parties who might be expected to be antagonistic with each other.

“This initiative shows that when Canadians from different sectors work together, we can make a real difference in protecting our wildlife and helping them to recover,” said Loyola Hearn, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Brown stated, “For those concerned about the survival and recovery of the North Atlantic right whale, the Roseway Basin designation is great news. This science-based conservation initiative demonstrates that industry, biologists and government can successfully collaborate to help in the recovery of an endangered species by reducing the potential for vessels and right whales to collide. The implementation of the “Area to be Avoided” measure is a major step forward in helping the right whale to recover.”

That model was used in both Boston and for the new proposal in the Roseway Basin. All of the changes required the approval and adoption by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the governing body that coordinates shipping routes around the globe. The IMO just adopted Canada’s proposal at its 83rd session in Copenhagen, Denmark which is still underway until October 12.

How far will this trend reach is an open question. Just over the past month, three blue whales were apparently killed by ship traffic in southern California waters where they gather to feed during the summer months. Conservationist organizations have requested emergency speed restrictions there. Proposed new rules from the U.S.’s National Marine Fisheries Service to slow down ships in active right whale habitats along the East Coast have been stalled in a review from the Office of Management and Budget. Still, this latest move by Canada serves to remind us that practical, cooperative solutions can be implemented with the support of the shipping industry to protect America’s coastal whales.