North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered species of large whales.
North Atlantic Right Whale Population: How Many Are Left?
North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered species of large whales. Their population is estimated to have just over 400 individuals remaining. In 2015, North Atlantic right whales were listed as endangered under the Canadian Species at Risk Act and they have not yet shown signs of recovery.
Where North Atlantic Right Whales Live
North Atlantic right whales are migratory animals mostly found along the Atlantic Coast of Canada during the summer and fall months where they are exposed to human activities. This near-surface, slow swimming species is particularly vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships. In Canada, these whales tend to congregate in the Bay of Fundy and along the Scotian Shelf. However, starting in 2017, large numbers have been sighted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
2% of the North Atlantic Right Whale Population Lost in Two Months
In 2017, twelve North Atlantic right whales washed up along the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Newfoundland; an unusually high number of deaths. Only six necropsies could be conducted as six of the carcasses could not be examined and their cause of death remains undetermined. Two of the whales had acute entanglement with fishing gear; reports for four of the whales indicated that blunt force trauma contributed to their deaths. It is reasonable to assume that the trauma likely came from collisions with ships.
Traditionally, the right whales’ feeding grounds included the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin, which are determined as critical habitat for right whales in Canada.
In 2003, shipping lanes were rerouted in the Bay of Fundy to reduce the potential for ship collisions. It is estimated that the rerouting measures reduced the potential for ship collisions with right whales by 90%. However, as the whales have been appearing over the past five years in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, scientists speculate that the whales may be shifting away from their traditional habitat to follow their food source.
Let’s Talk Whales
The Canadian federal government has pledged to bring “absolutely every protection to bear” to prevent the deaths of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada are working closely to provide the resources necessary to protect this endangered species.
In 2017, Fisheries and Oceans Canada launched Let’s Talk Whales as online public engagement for Canadians on the recovery efforts and priority actions for the North Atlantic Right Whale, the St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga and the Southern Resident Killer Whale.
“Whales captivate our imaginations but these magnificent mammals are also incredibly vulnerable. New threats such as ship strikes, entanglements, pollution and climate change are taking a toll on whales around the world. Letstalkwhales.ca is an opportunity to not just be part of the discussion but also part of the solution. Go online and share your ideas. An all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to further protect these three endangered whales.”
– Terry Beech, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard and Member of Parliament for Burnaby North-Seymour
Protecting Right Whales in Canadian Waters
In August 2017, the Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau, and the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Dominic LeBlanc, announced further measures for the protection of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The government of Canada implemented a temporary mandatory slowdown for vessels of 20 metres or more in length to a maximum of 10 knots when travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island during the 2017 season.
Transport Canada inspectors, with assistance from the Canadian Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services, enforced this precautionary measure with a penalty of up to $25,000 until the right whales migrated from the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
In 2018, the Government of Canada announced further measures to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters. On March 28, 2018, Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau, and the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Dominic LeBlanc, reinstated the mandatory speed restriction in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence from April 28 until November 15, 2018. No North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Canadian waters in 2018.
Monitoring for Whales
When no whales are in the area, vessels may travel at normal speeds in parts of two designated shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island. However, when a North Atlantic right whale is spotted, a 15-day mandatory slowdown to less than 10 knots will be activated and can be extended as needed. Transport Canada will continue to use aerial surveillance to monitor shipping lanes for North Atlantic right whales.
Whale Protection: New in 2019
In 2019, the Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau, and the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Jonathan Wilkinson, announced an updated plan, developed with interested stakeholders, to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales while sustaining and growing the ocean economy of eastern Canada during the 2019 season.
The mandatory vessel slowdown when whales are present will be reinstated starting April 28, 2019 as shown in the chart below. The government has also provided $1 million in funding to support disentangling whales from fishing gear and develop new “whale safe” fishing technology.
The full list of restrictions and more information can be found here.
Learn more about the North Atlantic right whale population and what is being done to protect them:
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Published August 10, 2017
Last modified on April 18, 2019