#33: Safer Havens for Right Whales in Canadian Waters

Vessel strikes are the leading known cause of right whale mortality from human activities. The shape, behavioral characteristics and habitat preferences of right whales make them especially vulnerable to being struck by vessels. Right whales are difficult for mariners to see, especially in rough seas and at night due to their low profile and dark coloration. Right whales are black, have a broad back and no dorsal fin. They move slowly and they spend extended periods at or near the surface. Typical behavior includes resting at the surface, social activity (i.e. courtship), skim feeding (i.e. swimming slowly near or at the surface as they filter zooplankton from the water), and nursing their young. They appear to not be aware or slow to respond to approaching vessels.

Roseway Basin--a place where right whales feed and socialize in the summer and fall--is located about 30 nautical miles south of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia and is one of two conservation areas for right whales in Atlantic Canada. The second is located in the Bay of Fundy, a summer and fall nursery area and feeding habitat. The 1993 designation as conservation areas by the Canadian government provided recognition, but no extra protection, to the whales inside the area boundaries. Vessel traffic was not excluded from the areas.

In the Bay of Fundy, a female calf named Calvin provided the impetus to relocate the Bay of Fundy shipping lanes; she was orphaned when her mother died as the result of vessel strike in 1992. In 2002, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted an amendment to the existing shipping lanes. Implemented by Transport Canada in July 2003, the measure directed large vessel traffic around the aggregation of right whales reducing the probability of a vessel/whale interaction by 90 percent.

After the success in the Bay of Fundy, we turned our attention to Roseway Basin, the second summer and fall haunt of right whales. The process to reduce the risk of vessel strikes began with right whale sighting data collected in Canadian waters since the early 1980s (primarily by the New England Aquarium) and data crunching by Bob Kenney at the University of Rhode Island, and Christopher Taggart and Angelia Vanderlaan at Dalhousie University. The analyses of shipping routes and right whale sightings in the area by Dalhousie researchers indicated that, with the declaration of an Area to be Avoided (ATBA), the probability and risk of vessel collisions with right whales could be significantly reduced with minimal disruption to ship routes.

Although the total number of ships that actually transit the area was not known, an estimate was made using ECAREG (Eastern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone), ICOADS (International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set) and AMVER (Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System) data sources. Based on these reporting systems, it was been estimated that a minimum of 1,700 ships navigate in and around the area annually and that many of the vessels are bound to or from ports in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Saint John, New Brunswick; the United States; the United Kingdom; Russia; Belgium; Norway and other European destinations and the route used generally reflects the Great Circle route from Europe and the East Coast of North America.

In April, 2007, the proposal for an ATBA designation south of Nova Scotia was submitted to the IMO by Transport Canada, and had a great deal of support from Canadian industry (e.g. Irving Oil and Atlantic Pilotage), government agencies (Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Canadian Marine Advisory Council), scientists (National Marine Mammal Peer Review Committee of DFO) and the Canadian Right Whale Recovery Team. Special accolades are due to Lindy Johnson of NOAA (pdf bio) for garnering support from the U.S. delegation to IMO.

In October 2007 the IMO adopted Canada's proposal to designate 980 square nautical miles of Roseway Basin as an ATBA. That means that vessels of 300 gross tons and above will be recommended to steer clear of the area from June 1 to December 31. The measure went into effect on May 1, 2008 and while the area will be recommended rather than mandatory, it was anticipated that the marine community would heed the recommendation and give way to the whales. There is always an option to return to IMO to seek mandatory measures if the recommended ones are not sufficient.

In 2008, the New England Aquarium and Canadian Whale Institute once again in collaboration with our colleagues at Dalhousie University initiated a marine stewardship recognition program for the Roseway Basin ATBA. Dalhousie scientists are monitoring, in near real time, vessel traffic in the vicinity of Roseway Basin to measure compliance with the ATBA through their Vessel Avoidance and Conservation Area Transit Experiment (VACATE). They are using Automatic Identification System (AIS) technology that transmits static, dynamic, and voyage related information including vessel position, speed, heading, destination, and vessel type. The VHF radio transmissions are received using a Bell-Aliant cell tower and antenna located near Cape Sable Island. Dalhousie scientists are using the AIS data to determine the routes of vessels in the Roseway Basin area, as well as calculating the additional mile and time cost for those vessels that avoid the ATBA in comparison to a standardized trip through the ATBA for each vessel. The same can be done for vessels that continue to transit the ATBA by providing alternative routing and associated cost. Although the ATBA is a recommended (i.e. voluntary) measure, the computer monitoring of vessel routes provides information on those vessels that are avoiding the area and thus provide a measure of compliance as well as those that are not and may not yet be aware of the IMO recommendation to avoid the area.

In the first month of implementation, preliminary analyses conducted by Dalhousie researchers found that about 70 percent of the vessels avoided the Roseway Basin ATBA. Researchers have also detected that some vessels that passed through the ATBA on one leg of their voyage avoided the area on their return trip. Seventy percent compliance in the first three months is a very good response from the maritime industry for this new measure. In these early stages, non-compliance is likely an issue of awareness of the new ATBA. Information placards like Caution Mariners are being distributed to mariners in Atlantic Canadian ports through port authorities, shipping agents,and harbor pilots to increase awareness of the implementation of these conservation measures.

The 2008 implementation of the IMO sanctioned Roseway Basin ATBA and the 2003 amendment to the IMO mandated Bay of Fundy shipping lanes are two examples of how New England Aquarium researchers and their collaborators are working with corporations and government to not only develop, but more importantly implement, conservation measures for right whales and monitor mariner compliance. These actions will promote recovery of right whales and last well beyond our lifetimes. What does this mean for right whales in Canadian waters? It means that the calves, like Calvin's first calf born in Florida waters in 2005, will have a safer haven in the Bay of Fundy in which to fatten and grow. And on Roseway Basin adult right whales will have a safer place to engage in the activities that result in more calves. Thank you to our partners in right whale recovery!

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