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Do the Right Thing
Photograph below provided by LAURIE MURISON,
Grand Manan Whale & Seabird Research Station

   As the Dutch-registered ship Levantgracht makes her way to port in Saint John, an operator with Fundy Traffic, an arm of the Canadian Coast Guard, is on the radio.
   Fundy Traffic: "For your information, you are now approaching a right whale and conservation area. Right whales are an endangered species and are protected under the Canadian Fisheries Act. It is requested you maintain a close lookout and that to the extent that is possible, take action to avoid a collision with these whales, if sighted. Please report any whale sightings to Fundy Traffic. Include the number of whales and position of sighting. Over."
   Levantgracht: "I vant to say I vill do so. Ve keep a sharp lookout for de vhales. In case ve encounter them, ve'll make vay for them and ve vill report to you the number and the direction vhere they are going. Over."
   Fundy Traffic: "Thank you."
   Levantgracht: "Your very velcome. I think it is a very good cause."
   All ships greater than 20 metres in length are required to report to Fundy Traffic entering and leaving the Bay of Fundy. During the six months the right whales are also in the bay, the ships are warned to be on the lookout for whales in the area.
   In 1996 to 1997, Fundy Traffic monitored more than 2,800 ship transits through the bay, including Very Large Crude Carriers that are more than 1,100 feet long and weight more than 400,000 tonnes. Even at 50 tonnes, a right whale wouldn't stand a chance.
   Often, those ships will report whale sightings to Fundy Traffic. The Wellington Kent reported seeing 12 whales one day in late August. A coast Guard ship saw four on another day. Scientists aboard the research vessel Neried reported seeing about 100 whales on back-to-back days in late August.
   But there are other times those ships don't see anything.
   "Of course, this doesn't work very well at night," says Moira Brown, a senior scientist who heads East Coast Ecosystems and is one of the Canadian members of the research team.
   "It doesn't work very well in the five days of fog we've just had.
   To be perfectly honest, what we really need to do is move the lanes," she says. "The lanes need to be shifted to the east."
   The right whale sanctuary in the Bay of Fundy was designated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 1993 and measures 15-by-12 nautical miles, covering the area about midway between Grand Manan and the Digby Neck area of Nova Scotia. During the last six months of the calender year, as many as 200 of the world's 300 right whales can be found here.
   Running through the eastern half of that sanctuary are the international shipping lanes - two half-miles wide inbound and outbound lanes separates by a three-mile wide median (see map). Of most concern to scientists is the outbound lane - the one closest to Grand Manan - which pierces the heart of the conservation zone and where scientists have documented a heavy concentration of whale sightings, especially along the outbound lane's western boundary.
   The proposal they're researching would see the bend in the lanes moved to a point nearer the eastern edge of the conservation zone to minimize the overlap between the shipping lanes and the whales' playground.
   "We cannot move the whales," says Brown. "The whales are there. These animals are too big to move. You can't move their food supply. This is a natural occurrence.
   "If we are going to do something to reduce the potential for human-related mortality from ship collisions, we've got to move the shipping lanes to reduce the overlap."Shipping lanes are designated to improve safety of navigation and to reduce the risk of marine pollution. Never before has the International Maritime Organization (IMO) changed shipping lanes due to whales.
    "This is a very unusual situation," says David Jenkins of Transport Canada, who heads the Canadian delegation to the IMO's subcommittee on the safety, of navigation. "I don't recall routing systems being adjusted or put in place for these particular reasons, although they may be quite valid reasons. That is something we would have to look at when the proposal is submitted.
   "Just off the top of my head, there would be a lot of questions to be asked" says Jenkins. Whales, like any other non-human animal, don't respect lanes or anything like that. What would keep them out of a lane if we moved it, for instance?"
    The right whale scientists know there will be questions, and they intend to have the answers before they submit their proposal to the IMO, Probably early in 1998 for consideration at IMO's July 1998 meeting. They are doing aerial and surface surveys for whales, keeping an eye out for whales outside the conservation-area as well. They are also examining fishing activity in the area to which they would like the lanes moved.
    "We want to get all our ducks in a row," says Amy Knowlton, an associate scientist on the project who just completed her master's .thesis on the regulation of shipping to protect right whales. "To the north and east of the shipping lanes we've seen very little fishing activity and we have not sighted any right whales," says Brown. "That's mostly what we're trying to do last year and this year, get that area thoroughly covered during the peak season so that we can make sure that what we're going to do is actually going to accomplish reducing the two things in the same place."
    Another question to be asked is the economic impact moving the lanes would have on shipping. "If a ship has spent weeks coming from the Middle East, I don't see what difference another 20 or 30 minutes would make," says Brown. "But I studied whales, I didn't study shipping. It might make a difference."
   The concern of the IMO would more likely be what effect moving the lanes would have on shipping safety. "To be honest with you, I don't know how receptive IMO would be to this particular request," says Jenkins. "I suspect that if there was no negative impact on safety of shipping or on the protection of the marine environment in general, I don't suppose there would be much objection at IMO."
   However, the London-based United Nations agency also take ecological concerns into account when designating shipping lanes, says Jenkins. In Florida Keys, for instance, shipping lanes are kept away from coral reefs in the area. "Where you have the most endangered large whale in the world is a pretty environmentally sensitive area," says Brown.

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