Masters and crews operating along the US/Canadian East Coast must maintain a good lookout for North Atlantic right whales and follow the speed restrictions in force at any given time.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered species of large whale. It was hunted to the brink of extinction by commercial whalers by the early 1890s and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that less than 400 right whales remain. The North Atlantic right whale is found almost exclusively along the East Coast of Canada and the US. Each autumn some right whales travel more than 1,500 km from their feeding grounds off Canada and New England to their calving areas in the warm coastal waters of South Carolina, Georgia, and north-eastern Florida. Unfortunately, its habitat and migration routes are located close to major ports and often overlap with shipping lanes, making the whales vulnerable to collisions with vessels.
So - although the days of whaling are long gone - human interactions still represent the greatest danger to the North Atlantic Right whale. This has prompted both Canada and the US to implement various measures to prevent vessel strikes during periods when North Atlantic right whales are likely to be present.
Transport Canada (TC) has now announced the vessel traffic management measures that will be enforced in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the 2023 whale season, which this year extends from 19 April to 15 November. The following restrictions apply to all vessels more than 13 m in overall length (OAL):
- In the Northern and Southern Static Zones, shown in pink in the map below, a fixed mandatory speed restriction of maximum 10 knots is in force during the entire whale season.
- In the Dynamic Shipping Zones A to E, shown in green in the map below, a temporary mandatory speed restriction of maximum 10 knots will enter into force when a right whale is spotted near or in the shipping lanes. This temporary mandatory speed restriction will initially be in force for 15 days but may be extended depending on the presence of whales.
- In the Seasonal Management Areas north and south of the Dynamic Shipping Zone E, shown in dark pink in the map below, a fixed mandatory speed restriction of maximum 10 knots is in force from 19 April to 27 June. From 28 June to 15 November, a temporary mandatory speed restriction of 10 knots will enter into force if a right whale is spotted in the area and will remain in force for at least 15 days.
- A Restricted Area near the Shediac Valley, shown in dark blue in the map below, has been established as larger numbers of North Atlantic right whales normally gathers for feeding and surface activity in this area during the summer months. Vessels more than 13 m in OAL are prohibited from entering the restricted area unless they are on the list of exempted vessels. Exempted vessels, which typically include fishing vessels, governmental vessels, research vessels, vessels in distress, etc. cannot exceed 8 knots when transiting the restricted area. As implementation of the zone restrictions depends on the seasonal fishing activity in the area, TC will communicate the exact timing of this zone to mariners through a navigational warning once decided.
- A Voluntary Seasonal Slowdown Zone, shown in grey in the map below, has been established and spans from the Cabot Strait to the eastern edge of Dynamic Shipping Zone E. To coincide with the North Atlantic right whales’ migration in and out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a voluntary speed restriction of maximum 10 knots is force in this zone during the periods 19 April to 27 June and 27 September to 15 November.
In addition, TC reminds operators of vessels of 300 gross tonnage or more of the Roseway Basin’s Area to be Avoided, which will be in force from 1 June to 31 December 2023. The Roseway Basin is located approximately 20 nautical miles south of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia, and is a critical habitat for North Atlantic right whales. All masters are encouraged to avoid this area, if possible, to support the recovery of this endangered species. For more information and a map of the Roseway Basin’s area, click here.
Please visit TC’s website “ Protecting North Atlantic right whales from collisions with vessels in the Gulf of St. Lawrence” for additional information. The exact coordinates for all the above areas can be found in TC’s Ship Safety Bulletin No.05/2023.
Every year, NOAA implements the following measures along the US East Coast:
- Mandatory ship reporting: Ships of 300 gross tons and above must report to a shore-based station when entering two key right whale habitats: one in the northeast off the coast of Massachusetts and Cape Cod (year-round reporting required) and one in the southeast off the coast of Georgia and Florida (reporting required between 15 November and 16 April). See NOAA’s “Mandatory Ship Reporting System Placard”.
- Fixed speed restriction zones: All vessels 65 feet (19.8 m) in OAL or more must travel at 10 knots or less in certain locations, referred to as seasonal management areas (SMAs), along the US East Coast at certain times of the year. An overview of the SMAs are shown in the map below and additional details are provided in NOAA’s “Compliance Guide”.
Fixed speed restriction zones in the US
Period (every year)
Cape Cod Bay
1 January - 15 May
Off Race Point
1 March - 30 April
Great South Channel
1 April - 31 July
1 November - 30 April
15 November - 15 April
- Temporary speed reduction zones:Voluntary 10 knot speed restriction zones, referred to as dynamic management areas (DMAs) and slow zones, may be established at short notice when right whales are detected visually or acoustically. Active DMAs and slow zones will be announced by the NOAA through its customary maritime communication media and mariners are encouraged to avoid these areas or reduce vessels’ speed to 10 knots or less while transiting. An overview of DMAs and slow zones in force is available here. Interested parties can sign up for email notifications by clicking here.
- Voluntary seasonal ‘Area To Be Avoided’ (ATBA): An ATBA has been established in the Great South Channel and ships of 300 gross tons and above are recommended to avoid the ATBA from 1 April 1 to July 31 when right whales face their highest risk of vessel strikes in this area.
- Recommended shipping lanes: Recommended shipping lanes have been established within Cape Cod Bay (January through May) and in right whale nursery areas off Georgia and Florida (November through April). See NOAA’s “Recommended Routes leaflet” for details.
Please visit NOAA’s website “Reducing Vessel Strikes to North Atlantic Right Whales“ for additional details.
It is also worth noting that the NOAA has proposed changes to its North Atlantic right whale speed rule to further reduce the likelihood of mortalities and serious injuries to these whales from vessel collisions. If all of the proposed changes are accepted, the current SMAs will be expanded, the speed rule will apply to more vessels and mandatory speed restrictions will apply in DMAs when whales have been sighted, among other things. At the time of writing we are have no information about the regulatory timeline for finalising the proposed rule changes, but all relevant information is available in the Federal Register under Doc No. 2022-16211.
It is a vessel operator’s responsibility to ensure that its crews are familiar with the risk of vessel collisions with the endangered North Atlantic right whale. We recommend Members and clients with vessels trading along the US East Coast and in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence to:
- Make sure crews receive basic training in the precautionary measures to be taken when operating in areas where right whales are known to be present, including identification and reporting. Learn more about the appearance and behaviour of North Atlantic right whales from NOAA’s species directory.
- Check for active speed reduction zones. Temporary speed reduction zones can be activated at any time of the year if a right whale is confirmed to be in a certain location.
- Encourage Masters to reduce the vessel’s speed to 10 knots or less while transiting areas with voluntary speed restrictions (DMAs), or alternatively route around the area, and to post lookouts that are familiar with spotting right whales.
- Review, and update as necessary, vessels’ procedures for pre-arrival reporting to make sure they are in line with the provisions of the US Right Whale Mandatory Ship Reporting System.
- Collect information about right whale sightings from all available sources. This enables crews to conduct the most prudent voyage planning to/from ports in areas where right whales may be present. A Whale Alert app for iPad and iPhone is also available.
- Instruct crews not to intentionally approach within 500 yards (460 m) of a North Atlantic right whale as this is a violation of US federal law. Other vessels in the area should be alerted when a right whale is sighted.
Violations of the mandatory North Atlantic right whale speed restrictions can lead to civil administrative penalties being issued against the vessel.