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More is needed to save Right Whale

FRANK J. HOGAN
Legal Counsel Public Interest Project
Saint John
Via e-mail
August 30/02

   I was pleased to open my newspaper last Saturday to the back page of section one and see a full page picture of the rarest and most endangered whale in the world, the North Atlantic Right Whale. Fewer than 350 of these magnificent creatures now inhabit Planet Earth. This makes it rarer than the black rhino, mountain gorilla or giant panda. Human activity, has brought this marine mammal to the edge of extinction.
   The Bay of Fundy is this whales summer feeding and nursery area. Over two-thirds of the known population is found in the Bay of Fundy area during the northern hemispheres summer and fall months. Proper protection in the Bay is critical to this animals' survival.
    The newspaper page was sponsored by Irving Oil which rightly deserves credit for participating in several government sponsored working groups which resulted in a decision, this month by the International Marine Organization to shift the boundaries of shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy by 5.5 kilometres. Currently shipping lanes pass through critical Right Whale habitat, the highest density of Right whale feeding concentration anywhere in the world. Irving Oil's partnership with the New England Aquarium, which has on staff some of the world's leading right whale scientists including the respected Dr. Moira Brown, is a positive barometer of good corporate citizenship.
   I do, however, have several concerns arising from the wording and implications in this advertisement. First, I object to the words eship/ whale interaction'. The whales are not interacting with the ships. The ships are striking and killing them. Ship strikes are the leading cause of injury and death among the Right Whale population.
   As Transport Canada states in its backgrounder on the need for shipping lane changes in the Bay of Fundy:
    "The impact of ship strikes on Right Whales has been well documented. Massive wounds (e.g., fractured skulls, severed tails, and large propeller slashes) found on Right Whale carcasses confirm that collisions between the whales and large ships have been responsible for a number of deaths. Between 1970 and 1999, 36 per cent of all Right Whale mortalities documented by whale biologists have been attributed to ship strikes. Since 1991, 56 percent of confirmed Right Whale mortalities have been attributed to ship strikes; this represents 50 percent of the total Right Whale deaths over the last decade. The actual total number of deaths resulting from ship strikes is unknown, however, it is almost certainly higher than the observed number."
   Secondly, I question the supposed fact stated in the full page add that "a mere 5.5 kilometer shift will reduce the chances of ship/whale interaction by 80 per cent." While one study does suggest that moving the shipping lanes "would reduce the maximum relative probability of a vessel whale encounter by as much as 80 percent," this is a hypothesis which has yet to be tested. The human species is notorious for overestimating its positive impacts and underestimating its negative ones.
   Right Whales are difficult to locate and monitor in the Bay of Fundy, evidence the recent problems locating three fishing gear entangled whales. Periodic vessel surveys are inadequate during inclement weather and at night. Even during good weather conditions, whales are often missed. With all their expertise and equipment, scientists to date cannot even find where the majority of this population of large creatures spend their winter months. They simply cannot find them. Closer to home, recent satellite transmitter results have demonstrated that Right Whales tagged in the Bay of Fundy travel "long distances" in the days or weeks between sightings (Mate et al. 1997).
    To my mind, the crucial question is not whether we have reduced one of the human risks facing the Right Whale, rather the question should be whether we have reduced human risk factors sufficiently to ensure the survival of this species. The Precautionary Principle, which Canada has endorsed by its ratification of the International Convention on Biological Diversity, would suggest we take all possible measures when faced with the greatest threat to life on Earth - irreversible extinction.
    Given Irving Oil's increased ship traffic resulting from the recent major expansion of the Irving Oil Refinery, and given its proposed new liquid natural gas plant with yet more ship traffic through this critical habitat area, I would ask that Irving Oil continue to demonstrate good corporate citizenship by implementing the following additional measures to avoid further ship strikes during the months that the Right Whale inhabits our Bay:
• reduce ship speeds;
• restrict vessel movements during inclement weather and at night;
• insist each ship post human look-outs while traveling in the Bay of Fundy;
• restrict vessel movements upon sighting of Right Whales;
• improve vessel captain communication with traffic safety personnel.
   One day we will have the technology to implant a longlasting transmitter under the skin of every endangered Right Whale. Through satellite global positioning system technology we will have the means to locate each whale in real time within a few metres of its actual location. Until then we must do everything in our power to preserve the life of this magnificent creature.

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