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
2020 Protective Measures
The Canadian government worked with marine researchers, the marine industry and non-governmental organizations to develop enhanced measures to better protect endangered North Atlantic right whales between April 28 and November 15. All vessels more than 13 metres in length must restrict speed to a maximum of 10 knots:
- in static zones in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence (as shown in the map below).
- temporarily in dynamic shipping zones (zones A, B, C, D, E in the map below) for 15 days following the sighting of at least one North Atlantic right whale in or near a dynamic shipping zone.
- in two seasonal management areas (SMA) from April 28 to June 30, and for 15 days if a North Atlantic right whale is detected from July 1 to November 15.
In the restricted area implemented in or near the Shediac Valley, all vessels more than 13 metres in length must either avoid the zone or restrict speed to a maximum of 8 knots.
In addition, the government has requested that vessels participate in voluntary slowdowns and do not exceed 10 knots during the following periods:
- April 28 to June 15, and from October 1 to November 15 in Cabot Strait.
- November 15 to December 31, if North Atlantic right whales are detected.
Source: Transport Canada, 2020
Transport Canada will continue to use aerial surveillance to monitor shipping lanes for North Atlantic right whales. As in previous years, the precautionary measures will be enforced with monetary penalties ranging from $6,000 to $25,000.
Previous Protective Measures
Canada 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.
The mandatory vessel slowdown when whales are present was reinstated starting April 28 (see chart below). The government also provided $1 million in funding to support disentangling whales from fishing gear and develop new “whale safe” fishing technology.
Despite protective measures in place, eight North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Canadian waters during the 2019 season; one of these deaths was caused by an entanglement while another was caused by a collision with a vessel. The causes of the other six deaths were unknown.
Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2019
Canada reinstated the mandatory speed restriction in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence from April 28 until November 15. No North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Canadian waters in 2018.
Canada announced further measures for the protection of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including 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.
Transport Canada inspectors, with assistance from the Canadian Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services, enforced this slowdown with a penalty of up to $25,000 until the right whales migrated from the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Learn more about the North Atlantic right whale population and what is being done to protect them:
#clearfacts #ourcoasts #whales
First published on August 10, 2017
Updated on April 10, 2020
Published April 10, 2020
Last modified on June 11, 2020