SAINT JOHN, New Brunswick - To better protect some of the world's most endangered whales from collisions with ships, Canadian authorities are changing the shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy beginning July 1. The move marks the first time shipping lanes have been altered to protect an endangered species. Over the last decade, ship collisions have been responsible for about 40 percent of all known North Atlantic right whale deaths.
North Atlantic right whales are one of the world's most endangered great whales. Only about 350 individuals remain and up to two-thirds of the population gathers in the Bay of Fundy each summer. A major shipping channel passes through the whales' summer feeding grounds there.
Industry and wildlife organizations have worked on the lane change over the past four years with Transport Canada, the government agency that regulates shipping. The groups applauded the change in shipping lanes.
"This is a major step for right whale conservation, but we still have work ahead because conservation measures are badly needed along the U.S. east coast from Florida to Maine to reduce the risk of ship strikes throughout the whales' range," said Moira Brown, senior scientist with the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., and the Canadian Whale Institute in Bolton, Ontario. "Studies show that saving just 2 females a year can help bring the population back, so this move is critically important."
The lane change came about after Transport Canada submitted a proposal last April to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to move ship traffic lanes in the Bay of Fundy so that they skirt the area where most right whales congregate. The IMO is the United Nations agency responsible for improving ship traffic safety. The Canadian proposal to move the shipping lanes was adopted at the IMO annual meeting of the Marine Safety Committee last December in London, England.
North Atlantic right whales calve in the waters off Florida and Georgia and most of the whales spend much of the summer and early fall in the Bay of Fundy, between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
"For these whales, spending their summers in the Bay of Fundy has been like having their playground in the middle of a highway," said Karen Baragona of World Wildlife Fund's whale conservation program. "We congratulate Transport Minister David Collenette for taking this important step towards reducing the whale's risk of collisions."
The lane-change proposal had widespread support in Atlantic Canada, including the backing of Irving Oil, which employs the largest shipping fleet in the Bay of Fundy. For the past five years, Irving Oil has been active on the right whale recovery team working groups in the U.S. and Canada, helping government officials, scientists and environmentalists find practical solutions for the endangered right whale population.
"Irving Oil is the largest operator of ships moving in and out of the Bay of Fundy and we fully support this move to protect the right whales feeding there," says John Logan, who manages Irving Oil's work with Right Whale conservation groups. "We have been working with the New England Aquarium for the past five years on the issue of altering the shipping lanes as well as supporting their right whale research in the Bay of Fundy each summer. It took some time to research and find the correct solution and this looks like it will reduce the chances of ship/whale interaction substantially."
Since 1997, World Wildlife Fund and the Center for Coastal Studies, with the New England Aquarium, have worked in partnership to support critical right whale research, increase federal funding available for conserving this species, and raise public awareness about threats to its survival. For more information about right whales, visit WWF's endangered wildlife section.