Update: Feds order tankers to slow down in Gulf of St. Lawrence

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UPDATED: Aug. 11, 2017 11:30 a.m.

The federal government has introduced a mandatory slow down for supertankers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to help prevent further deaths of north Atlantic right whales.

Vessels 20 metres or more in length must reduce their speed to a maximum  of 10 knots when travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Quebec north shore to north of P.E.I., effective immediately.

Marc Garneau, the Minister of Transport, and Dominic LeBlanc, the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, made the announcement Friday, Aug. 11 in Pointe-du-Chêne.

The news was welcomed by our Fundy Baykeeper, who earlier this month had called for a mandatory slow down of supertankers in the gulf.

Last week, LeBlanc had pledged that the federal government would take “every possible measure” to ensure the protection of the critically-endangered north Atlantic right whale.

While addressing the deaths of at least 10 right whales in the gulf this summer during a press conference in Moncton, LeBlanc said his department was working with Transport Canada to bring “absolutely every protection to bear” to protect right whales as they feed in the gulf, make their way back out of the channel later this summer, and potentially return to the area in high numbers next year.

“The Government of Canada will bring all of the resources necessary to bear to ensure that every possible measure is in place to ensure the protection of this endangered species,” LeBlanc said.

He said options include changing shipping lanes, using remote-controlled acoustic equipment to alert ships when whales are nearby, increasing aerial surveillance, and making changes to fishing gear.

The minister — who represents the New Brunswick riding of Beaséjour — said he is planning a symposium with the shipping and fishing industries to finalize a plan.

“We have, obviously, an enormous responsibility — Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans — to ensure that everything is done to make sure … that all of these options are on the table.”

During the press conference, LeBlanc described seeing a group of 10 to 15 right whales during a flight off the coast of Miscou Island, saying it was an “absolutely majestic sight and a privilege” to see the “iconic animals.”

In addition to the mandatory tanker slow down, the federal government has shortened the snow crab fishing season, placed restrictions on other fisheries, and asked fishers in the gulf to report any whale sightings.

LeBlanc said it’s believed 80 to 100 right whales are currently in the gulf, adding scientists expect similar numbers next year.

The 10 deaths represent two per cent of the entire right whale population on the planet. For context, that’s like Canada losing the entire population of New Brunswick in only two months.

The “unprecedented die-off” has amplified calls to keep the Laurentian Channel free of oil and gas exploration, especially given the federal government’s recent moves to potentially allow exploration in the channel where the gulf meets the Atlantic Ocean, a key migratory pathway for whales and other endangered species. Scientists say the activity would increase noise and traffic, negatively impacting whales and a range of marine animals.  

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