Speed limits… optional

The stronger the presence of whales in the marine park of Saguenay—Saint-Laurent, hundreds of merchant ships pass through this conservation area at speeds that pose a very real risk of collisions fatal to whales, according to official data obtained by The Duty. Experts believe, however, that it would be possible to impose a limit on the vessels that pass through them, in order to better protect whales, which are a boon for tourism for the province of Quebec.

Since 2013, thousands of cargo ships, container vessels and oil tankers up and down the St. Lawrence, crossing the only marine park in Quebec are invited to slow down to a speed of 10 knots (18.5 km/h). This ” voluntary measure “, which is in force from 1 may to 31 October, should help to reduce the risk of collisions, but also of fatal collisions with cetaceans which frequent the area, including some endangered species.

Des limites de vitesse... facultatives

Photo: Renaud Pintiaux
The humpback whale Tic Tac Toe, a star of the marine park of Saguenay—Saint-Laurent for 20 years now, has recently narrowly escape a collision with a bulk carrier. She was accompanied by her calf of the year and another humpback whale.

According to the data obtained from Parks Canada, a majority of the vessels complies with the recommendations. For the years 2017 to 2019, for example, an average of 74 % of them has completed their passage in this protected area now a speed estimated at between 10 knots and 11.8 knots. In comparison, when the “volunteers” are not in effect, from November to the end of April, no less than 87 % of these stately ships go to more of 11.8 knots, of which 63 % to more than 13 knots, which can be fatal for any whale encountered.

“The accession of the maritime industry to this voluntary measure is good and is improving each year. These actions have resulted in a significant decrease in speeds in the feeding areas of the large whales and, therefore, a risk of collision, ” explains Parks Canada, in a written reply. “We are working to improve the balance sheet,” adds in the interview, the team leader and ecologist at the management unit of the Saguenay—Saint-Laurent, Samuel Turgeon. Is that a goal has been set ? “There is no quantified target for the next few years, but we want to continue to improve, especially to reduce the most possible the quick trips” – that is, those over 13 knots (24 km/h).

This suggestion of speed does not, however, apply in a good part of the marine park. Using data from the automatic identification System (AIS), such as Parks Canada, The Duty has as well noted in the past few days several cases of cargo ships, container ships or oil tankers that sailed at speeds ranging from 13 to 18 knots in areas of the marine park that may be frequented by large whales, but are a part of the habitat of beluga whales. And as soon as they come out of the boundaries of the park, the ships speed up, despite the presence of very frequent of whales, mainly downstream.

What’s more, in the area where the voluntary reduction in speed is applied, data from Parks Canada show that hundreds of ships pass each year at speeds in excess of 11.8 knots. Thus, from 2014 to 2016, the compiled data indicate that 34 % of the vessels have travelled to most of 11.8 knots, or an average of 782 vessels, of which 11 % to over 13 knots.

In 2017, 27 % of trips were made to most of 11.8 knots, 24 % in 2018 and 26 % in 2019. This means that during the period 2017 to 2019, not less than 2020 ships have crossed the marine park at a speed far superior to that suggested for limiting the risks for cetaceans. Of this number, 548 transits have been made at more than 13 knots, a speed which can easily be fatal for any whale encountered.

Limit imposed ?

In this context, would it be possible to impose a speed limit on ships, instead of relying on a “voluntary measure” developed in collaboration with the shipping industry ? After all, the marine park of Saguenay—Saint-Laurent was created in 1998 in order to better protect the St. Lawrence river, including the habitat of cetaceans. And these animals are today a tourist attraction major. According to the official data, more than 260,000 people take part each year with a cruise of observation.

Parks Canada does not intend to limit mandatory, even if it is specified that ” the limit of the recommended speed of 10 knots is based on scientific studies “. “Parks Canada is satisfied with the results of voluntary measures and we work in the context of constantly improving ourselves in order to reduce the risk of collisions and to identify new avenues of solution,” says one email.

The president of the coordinating Committee of the marine park, Émilien Pelletier, for its part, considers that “it would be possible” to impose a regulation on the speed of the vessels. “I expect that a speed limit is imposed on a seasonal basis when the traffic will increase significantly with the industrial developments upstream,” says the one who has been involved in the marine park for more than 20 years. Both the Port of Montreal as Quebec hoping to launch expansion projects, which become heavier and heavier the commercial maritime traffic on the St. Lawrence river, not to mention the projects on the Saguenay.

Scientific director of Group for research and education on marine mammals, Robert Michaud judge that it would be possible to put in place a speed limit farm. But he stresses that the measure “voluntary” has given good results. According to him, it will also need to see if a speed reduction is in place in the upstream part of the marine park. Last year, the federal government has imposed a ban on the movement to whale watching cruises in this portion, which represents 44 % of the area of the park. However, the ships of the cruise lines do not frequent this area. But the merchant ships, which they run regularly at high speed. On Tuesday, a container ship of 245 metres in length, has maintained a speed of 17 to 18 knots, according to AIS data.

Spokesman of the Owners of the Saint-Laurent, Mathieu Larouche explains that the maritime industry collaborates to the protection of cetaceans. “The main reason for non-compliance with this voluntary measure is that, sometimes, variations in weather conditions change the speed of the ship, who tries to keep a margin of manoeuvre. It should also be noted that this often creates a temporary overrunning of the speed of 10 knots, the time to correct the situation, ” he adds. “It must be borne in mind that the vast majority of vessels to comply with the limit. When the limit is not respected, it is largely for security reasons. “

A higher limit for the zodiacs

For the companies that operate the many zodiacs of observation in the marine park, the speed limit is set at a steady 25 knots (46 km/h). “It’s very fast,” says the scientific director of Group for research and education on marine mammals, Robert Michaud. What’s more, these boats regularly encounter groups of beluga whales, particularly when they leave or arrive at the marina of Tadoussac, then when they are going up the Saguenay. The spokesperson of Croisières AML, Florence Roller, however, specifies that security rules are intended “to ensure the safety of cetaceans is respected”. The company, which operates 10 zodiacs and the three vessels, said, in particular, respect of the rules of approach and a certain distance from the animals. For all watching companies operating in the marine park, Parks Canada states that 22 “warnings” have been formulated by the agents present on the water, and this, since 2015. But none has led to the payment of a fine from 2016.

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