It marks the first time that the International Maritime Organization has altered a shipping route to protect marine mammals.
Since 1970, ship collisions have caused 38 percent of the 50 documented right-whale deaths. By moving the shipping lanes, the likelihood of a ship striking a right whale has been reduced by 80 percent, according to Canadian Transport Minister David Collenette.
The new traffic configuration adds between 20 and 30 minutes to the transit time of ships traveling into the port of St. John, New Brunswick, which has about 1,200 vessel calls each year.
The impact of the change on ship operations is minimal, according to John Logan, a senior manager at Irving Oil Ltd., which has a deepwater port at St. John Harbour. About 60 very large crude carriers (VLCCs) and about 360 40,000-ton tankers associated with Irving Oil call at the port each year, he said. The changes mean that occasionally a vessel may miss the high tide needed to enter the port.
“We’ll burn a little bit more fuel, maybe, but it isn’t significant,â€� Logan said. “It worked out well for us and the whales.â€� Other ports impacted by the change include Hantsport, Nova Scotia, a major exporter of gypsum; Digby, Nova Scotia; and Eastport, Maine.
Logan was a member of a committee established in 1999 by Transport Canada to come up with ideas to reduce the chances of vessels striking right whales. The committee included representatives from the Canadian Navy, the Canadian Coast Guard, Canada’s marine fisheries department, local conservation groups, as well as ship operators, fishermen, harbor pilots and scientists.
There are only about 350 North Atlantic right whales left. Intense efforts are underway in Canada to protect the marine mammals, efforts that often impact shipping and fishing. In 2000, Canada implemented a recovery plan designed to reduce human impact on right whales.
Right whales spend the winter in waters off southern Georgia and Florida, said Dr. Moira Brown, a senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass. From July through September, a large number of the whales are in the Bay of Fundy. The outbound lane for shipping traffic in the Bay of Fundy used to intersect an area where most of the right whales gathered, according to Brown, who was the co-chair of the Transport Canada committee.
Finding a solution to this problem was a challenge, Brown said. At first the committee looked into methods for mariners onboard vessels to detect the whales. The group also considered means to warn the whales. But scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts discovered that right whales do not move out of the way in response to the sound of a nearby ship, as other whales do.
Installing detection equipment on vessels was not a solution either. “Ships don’t have brakes, and they can’t turn on a dime,â€� Logan said. “I started looking around to see what technology was out there to detect whales, and there really wasn’t any. You could put a million dollars worth of equipment on each ship, and you wouldn’t get much further. You’d get so many false alarms, it wouldn’t be reliable.â€�
So if the whales could not get out of the way of the vessels, the Transport Canada committee decided to move the vessels away from the whales. “It seemed like the most logical solution was not to have an overlap between ships and whales,â€� Brown said.
However, moving the shipping lanes was complicated, since Nova Scotia is nearby, and the move had the potential to affect fishermen. “I think there was apprehension that in altering the lanes, you would get into areas that were traditional fishing areas and get close to the Nova Scotia shore,â€� said Mike Gilbert, acting officer-in-charge of Marine Communications and Traffic Services, Fundy, based in St. John. In fact, conflict between ships and fishermen has not become a problem, Gilbert said.
The committee had to create lanes that would work for vessel operators. “We didn’t want to put ships in danger, and we didn’t want to put the coastal residents of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia in danger,â€� Brown said.
It took several attempts to create a new traffic pattern. “I know when the first shift of the lane came, there were some doglegs,â€� Logan said. “We went down and talked to some captains, and they said, â€˜Think about this,’ and it was smoothed out a bit.â€�
The new traffic lanes, which were put in place just in time for the annual return of the right whales to the Bay of Fundy, are separating the ships from the whales. Brown was in the feeding grounds this past summer doing research. “It was so striking to me how far away those ships were,â€� she said.
Unfortunately, a right whale, thought to be an adult female, was struck and killed by a ship in the Bay of Fundy in early October. The carcass was found by a fishing vessel about 22 nm off the southwestern coast of Nova Scotia. Scientists were attempting to figure out exactly where the whale was when it was hit.
One lesson Logan drew from his work on the committee is that shipping-industry representatives should get involved early in environmental conservation efforts. “As long as there is somebody there, you can talk back and forth; that’s the important thing,â€� Logan said. “You can help people, and work towards a solution.â€�