Could whale protocols effective in other areas help the Gulf of St. Lawrence?

A National Park Service whale observer on the bow of a cruise ship in Glacier Bay A National Park Service whale observer on the bow of a cruise ship in Glacier Bay (Photo: National Park Service/Scott Gende)

A speed cap to safeguard highly endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is just the latest whale-related protocol involving cruise ships. Stakeholders are asking if successful practices from elsewhere could help mitigate the financial impact of this restriction on St. Lawrence ports and cruise lines.

Since mid-August all vessels must adhere to a 10-knot restriction across a huge zone that stretches from Québec's north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island. This affects cargo, ferry and cruise ships, and comes just as Canada/New England's short cruise season kicks in.

But it's not the only place where cruise ships follow protocols to protect whales, and perhaps practices like the use of spotters on ship bows, whale-reporting applications and/or other actions could alleviate the need for a blanket speed cap or even shrink the zone.

Such practices might provide relief for lines and destinations while safeguarding whales, said René Trépanier, executive director, Cruise the Saint Lawrence.

'The speed restrictions put in place are certainly having a large impact on Charlottetown this season,' according to Corryn Clemence, business development manager for the port. To date Prince Edward Island's leading cruise destination has had 10 cancellations, which accounts for approximately 8,000 passengers, and adjustments have been made to the time in port for a number of other calls.

Clemence said everyone understands the seriousness of trying to save these whales, however the impact on the cruise season, including the economic impact on destinations, is widely recognized.

Perhaps no ports have been more affected than Charlottetown and Québec's Gaspé, since both sit right on the edges of the restricted zone. As of last week Gaspé had eight cancellations, while Saguenay in Québec lost one call. Times in port have been shortened, too, which means the number of shore excursion departures have to be reduced or even halved, according to Trépanier.

The speed restriction is a regional issue that all ports and associations are working on together, in partnership with the government, to stay informed and find long-term solutions, Clemence said.

'We need a long-term solution,' stressed Trépanier, reiterating a plea he has made since the cap became mandatory on short notice in mid-August. He noted the Shipping Federation of Canada and the Association of Canadian Port Authorities are concerned about the impact on trade. Cruise Lines International Association - North West and Canada recently entered into the discussion, having been involved in other whale protection initiatives.

'In representing our member lines we take every opportunity to advise regulators and others of the programs our member lines are involved in,' a CLIA North West and Alaska spokeswoman said. This includes informing them of measures such as the app used to monitor whales' activity in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay and in Alaska.

A current issue in the Pacific Northwest involves a pod of southern resident killer whales and is not related to strikes but the impact of underwater noise on their environment. Some 52 marine organizations, including 10 cruise lines, are participating in a voluntary study coordinated by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority about the relationship between slower vessel speeds, underwater noise levels and effects on these whales.

Until Oct. 6, participating ships are reducing their speeds through the water in Haro Strait, between Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula and San Juan Island, when it is feasible and safe to do so. This area is an important summer feeding ground for the endangered southern resident killer whale population. Approximately 900 deep sea vessels are expected to transit Haro Strait during the study period.

A long-running effort to avoid while strikes in Alaska's Glacier Bay involves speed reductions and bow-positioned observers.

Dr. Scott Gende, senior science adviser for the Glacier Bay Field Station in Juneau, noted Glacier Bay supports a large, regionally important population of humpback whales during the summer. The park also receives about 225 annual visits from large cruise ships, which provide access for more than 500,000 visitors or about 95% of this national park's total annual visitation.

'Sighting whales is a highlight for many ship passengers,' Gende said.

Because the fjord is narrow, ships cannot simply re-route around areas where whales aggregate so the National Park Service developed a multi-tiered program aimed at reducing the chance of collisions.

Since 1985, Glacier Bay has supported one of the longest running humpback whale monitoring efforts worldwide with biologists conducting surveys five days per week, June through August, in different areas of the park. Should whale aggregations exceed a pre-determined criteria, speed restrictions of 13 knots, and occasionally 10 knots, are implemented in that area. When whales disperse, the speed restrictions are lifted.

Gende said these long-term monitoring efforts also help the park assess the health and status of the whales.  

In addition, for the past 11 years, many cruise ships have voluntarily welcomed National Park Service observers equipped with high-powered rangefinder binoculars as lookouts on the bow. They radio the bridge when a whale surfaces at a distance in front of the vessel.

Bridge personnel, including pilots, also watch for whales, but they have to monitor many other things while the observer's sole purpose is sighting whales. Their high-powered binoculars help them spot whales far ahead, critical to give enough time for the bridge to react.

Avoidance maneuvers may include reducing speed, slightly altering course or maintaining course and speed depending upon the whale’s location, direction of travel and certainty in the whale’s behavior.

The National Park Service, federal and state agencies, universities, the Southeast Alaska Pilot’s Association and cruise lines have worked together to raise the awareness of whale avoidance. In 2008, Holland America Line and NOAA teamed on an award-winning 'Avoiding Whale Strikes' training program for bridge teams and officers.

Other efforts include developing weekly whale maps distributed to bridge personnel showing the aggregate sightings of whales from the previous week. Even better, the WhaleAlert mobile app allows users to input sightings that are shared in near-real time. A further effort includes simulation experiments to develop effective avoidance maneuvers under different scenarios and future training modules.

Nearly all the Glacier Bay efforts are paid for by the passenger entry fees collected from cruise lines that go into the park. These fees, Gende said, are dedicated strictly for programs that help better understand and protect park resources from visitor use.

'These collective actions seems to be largely effective,' Gende told Seatrade Cruise News. 'While a confirmed collision between a cruise ship and humpback whale occurred in Glacier Bay in 2001, and another whale carcass was found in 2004 with injuries consistent with a lethal collision, no other collisions have been detected in the park since then, despite the regional whale population increasing by 4% to 7% per year over the past 20 years.'

Gende stressed he doesn't know much about the St. Lawrence issue so he's not suggesting that what's done in Glacier Bay would be effective or even applicable there. However, it may be valuable for decision-makers to know of potential alternatives.    

Trépanier thinks observers and a mapping system may indeed be worth investigating for the St. Lawrence.

'We are fortunate that our regional ports throughout Canada/New England have such a close working relationship with each other and throughout our industry with the cruise lines as it benefits open communication amongst ourselves and the governments,' Charlottetown's Clemence said.

'While every precaution is being taken to ensure the safety of these whales, I'm optimistic that a long-term solution will be found that works for everyone,' she added.

Meanwhile, the speed cap is actually benefiting one Canada/New England cruise destination. According to news reports, Sydney, Nova Scotia—which is outside the restricted zone—is picking up calls on itinerary changes. So far, five visits reportedly have been added: Norwegian Dawn on Sept. 25 and Oct. 9, Seven Seas Mariner on Oct. 12 and 22 and Silver Whisper on Oct. 18.

Posted 04 September 2017

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Anne Kalosh

US editor of Seatrade Cruise Review and Seatrade Cruise News

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