Science Response 2017/042

Science Advice on Timing of the Mandatory Slow-down Zone for Shipping Traffic in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Protect the North Atlantic Right Whale

Context

In Canada, the North Atlantic Right Whale (NARW) is listed as Endangered under Schedule I of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), resulting in legal protection of the species and mandatory recovery planning. Under SARA, recovery actions associated with NARW are managed and/or administered by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). The SARA Recovery Strategy describe threats to the species, recovery objectives, and approaches for achieving them. Recovery objectives include reducing mortality and injury from vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear (DFO 2014). SARA Action Plans identify more specific measures to understand and reduce threats. The two most practical methods of decreasing the risk of NARW injury or mortality from vessel collisions are altering traffic routes and reducing vessel speeds (Vanderlaan et al. 2008). The two approaches to reduce entanglement injury and mortality outlined in the proposed Action Plan are the prevention/reduction of interaction with fishing gear and response to entanglement incidents (DFO 2016).

Since June 2017, 12 NARW have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (GSL). Necropsies were conducted on 7 of these animals. In September 2017, the report from the first 6 necropsies confirmed 3 acute deaths from trauma consistent with vessel collisions, 1 mortality was the result of entanglement in fishing gear, and one carcass was very decomposed but did show signs of trauma (Daoust et al. 2017). In response to these mortalities, and prior to the release of the necropsy report, the Government of Canada implemented a voluntary speed restriction in the GSL for vessels greater than 20 m [65 feet] on 10 July 2017. On 11 August 2017, a mandatory slow-down zone (Figure 1; pink shaded area) was implemented. The zone, which requires all vessels greater than 20 m to reduce their speed to a maximum of 10 knots, is bounded by the following coordinates: 47° 10 N 62° 00 W; 47° 10 N 65 00 W; 50° 20 N 65 00 W; 50° 20 N 62 00 W (62,803 km2 in total area).

On 2 November 2017, DFO Science was asked to provide immediate guidance to Transport Canada (TC) and DFO on the temporal adjustment of the slow-down zone in the GSL. Given the short timeline for a response, DFO’s Science Response Process was used to deliver the advice. A more thorough advisory process will be needed to develop criteria for adjustments to mitigation measures (e.g., boundaries, speed and duration of speed restriction zones for NARW protection) going forward.

This Science Response addresses four questions:

  1. When are North Atlantic Right Whales expected to leave the mandatory slow-down zone in 2017, and how will we know when they have moved?
  2. When are North Atlantic Right Whales expected to leave the broader Gulf of St. Lawrence and Cabot Strait area in 2017, and how will we know that they have gone?
  3. What is known about when North Atlantic Right Whales will return to the mandatory slow-down zone in the spring of 2018, and in what numbers?
  4. What is known about when North Atlantic Right Whales will return to the broader Cabot Strait and Gulf of St. Lawrence area in the spring of 2018?

This Science Response Report results from the Science Response Process of 1 December 2017 on the Science Advice on Timing of the Mandatory Slow-Down Zone for Shipping Traffic in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Protect North Atlantic Right Whale.

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