Short-notice whale speed cap surprises St. Lawrence lines

Vessel speeds are capped at 10 knots within the shaded area to avoid right whale strikes Vessel speeds are capped at 10 knots within the shaded area to avoid right whale strikes

Some Canada/New England itineraries may be impacted by a new speed restriction across a large swath of the Gulf of St. Lawrence that was put in place on short notice to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales. The zone stretches from the western Gulf from Québec's north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island.

This 10-knot cap means ships may have to abbreviate port calls or even miss a port to keep their schedule. Canadian operator CTMA has already canceled several calls at Gaspé.

The speed limit was mandated earlier this month by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Transport Canada and the Coast Guard.

'It was decided very quickly, said René Trépanier, executive director of Cruise the Saint Lawrence. 'This didn't give the opportunity to react.'

Trépanier added that cruise lines and destinations, as good environmental stewards, accept the speed cap to protect 'one of the most fragile great mammals on earth.' However, short-notice itinerary changes will impact the revenues of ports and cruise operators—to what degree varies depending on itineraries.

Holland America Line, for example, has adjusted its time in Charlottetown, PEI, leaving a bit earlier to keep the schedule. 'It isn't really affecting our tour program,' a shore excursions manager said.

But the peak fall foliage cruise season hasn't kicked in yet, and more operators may be impacted then. A big ship line and a smaller luxury line told Seatrade Cruise News they might have to drop a port call on several itineraries. Speeds between some ports may typically be 17 knots or higher, so reducing to 10 knots requires four more hours of transit time.

At a conference call last week, ship operators expressed their concerns to Canadian officials, and another conference call is scheduled for Wednesday, with cruise lines invited to participate.

Trépanier said 106 whales have been counted so far in the zone under the 10-knot cap. That number is about 20% of the 500 right whales in the world. Twelve whales have died in the area, but the cause hasn't been determined. Ship strikes or fishing nets may have played a role in some of the deaths, but this has not been confirmed.

For years ships have reduced speeds during certain times and locations along the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida to avoid whale strikes. Only since 2015 have right whale movements changed so that an increasing number are coming into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Trépanier suggested there are ways to address the speed cap in the Gulf that could mitigate the impact on shipping and destinations. The zone may be too big. There are ways of tracking the movements of the whales by planes or underwater drones that could more precisely target speed restricted areas. Perhaps ships could post additional whale lookouts.

Posted 21 August 2017

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Anne Kalosh

US editor of Seatrade Cruise Review and Seatrade Cruise News

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