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New tool allows public to monitor ship speeds in right whale zones

Jul 21, 2020 11:52 AM

A new report demonstrates the 'urgent need' for a mandatory slowdown in the Cabot Strait

The following is text of a news release from Oceana Canada:

(OTTAWA) — A report released Tuesday by Oceana Canada reveals that a voluntary slowdown measure put in place by Transport Canada this year to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from deadly ship strikes in the Cabot Strait is being largely ignored. High vessel speeds put North Atlantic right whales at even greater risk of being killed by ship strikes – one of their leading causes of death.

North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered marine mammals on the planet, with only about 400 individuals remaining. They were designated as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature earlier this month, reflecting the species’ high risk of extinction. In June, a right whale calf was found dead off the coast of New Jersey, likely due to fatal ship strikes. In January, a calf was found injured off the coast of Georgia and is presumed to be dead due to severe ship-strike wounds. Fatal ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear are top threats to this species, with overall deaths now outnumbering births. At least 31 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead since 2017, 21 of them in Canadian waters. Oceana Canada is calling on Transport Canada to take action by imposing a mandatory speed limit in the Cabot Strait, a key passage for these whales to their summer feeding grounds.

Oceana Canada’s report, Dangerous Passage, demonstrates the urgent need for a mandatory slowdown. Using Global Fishing Watch data, which is a component of the new, innovative tool called Ship Speed Watch, Oceana Canada tracked ship speeds in the Cabot Strait from April 28 to June 15. During this 49-day period, Transport Canada asked vessels longer than 13 meters (42.5 feet) to slow down to 10 knots. Exceptionally few complied, with 67 percent of the ships (464 out of 697) traveling faster than the 10-knot limit, and some vessels even travelling 20 knots or faster. Studies have found that slowing ship speeds to less than 10 knots in areas where these whales may be encountered can reduce the lethality of collisions by 86 percent.

As a result of these findings, Oceana Canada is urgently calling on Transport Canada to immediately upgrade the slowdown zone in the Cabot Strait from voluntary to mandatory, with enhanced monitoring and surveillance of the area to better understand when and where whales are present. The current voluntary measure will go into effect again from Oct. 1 to Nov. 150. As of July, 150 North Atlantic right whales have been seen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

About Ship Speed Watch

Ship Speed Watch is an innovative tool launched to the public Tuesday. Oceana’s Ship Speed Watch allows users to monitor ship speeds and positions in areas frequented by North Atlantic right whales along the East Coast of Canada and the U.S. in near real-time. The tool uses self-reported data to show ship locations, ship speeds and active voluntary and mandatory speed restriction zones. The tool also provides additional information about speed restrictions in place to protect this endangered species. When mandatory and enforced, speed restriction zones can help prevent deadly collisions with ships, one of two leading causes of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. Ship Speed Watch was created based on automatic identification system (AIS) data from Global Fishing Watch, an independent nonprofit founded by Oceana in partnership with Google and SkyTruth, which uses cutting-edge technology to interpret data from various ship tracking resources.

To access Oceana Canada’s full report, visit oceana.ca/RightWhaletoSave.  
To learn more about Oceana’s binational campaign to protect North Atlantic right whales, visit www.oceana.org/RightWhaletoSave.

Ship Speed Watch uses vessel information in the Global Fishing Watch database. This information is transmitted from a vessel’s AIS, which is collected via satellites and terrestrial receivers. Faulty AIS devices, user error, intentional manipulation, crowded areas, poor satellite reception, and transmission flaws are factors that contribute to noise and errors in AIS data, and sometimes those inaccuracies can be reflected in the speed and location of a vessel. Vessel operators can accidentally or purposefully enter false information into their ship’s AIS thus concealing their identity or location. In crowded areas, such as ports, the massive number of radio transmissions can crowd the bandwidth of satellite and terrestrial receivers, leading to inaccuracies as well. For these reasons, Ship Speed Watch information must be relied upon solely at your own risk. 

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