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A North Atlantic right whale is seen in a March 28, 2018, file photo.

Michael Dwyer/The Associated Press

Early analysis of vessel speeds in the Cabot Strait shows that more than two-thirds are not complying with a voluntary speed restriction meant to protect endangered right whales that migrate through the area.

Advocacy group Oceana Canada has released one week of results from its ongoing study, which is assessing data from vessels travelling inside speed restriction zones.

Between May 19 and May 25, 72 per cent of vessels recorded passing through the strait between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were observed travelling at speeds above the requested 10 knots, with the highest observed at 21.1 knots.

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The findings will be part of a fuller study to be released in July that will look at the first trial period of the speed restriction.

“I was surprised by the level of non-compliance,” said Kim Elmslie, director of the right whale campaign, noting it was higher than a similar study conducted in U.S. waters.

Elmslie said the results show why measures should be mandatory to guarantee all precautions are being taken to protect a population that is in danger of extinction.

“I appreciate that Transport Canada wanted to do this measure as a trial this year, but we don’t have time. The whales don’t have time to trial things,” she said. “We need the measure to be mandatory now.”

Elmslie said Oceana Canada is asking Ottawa to make the slowdown measure in the Cabot Strait mandatory as of Oct. 1, when a second period of the speed restriction is set to begin.

The Cabot Strait, which runs between Cape North, N.S. and Cape Ray, N.L., is an essential corridor for North Atlantic right whales migrating to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they feed on small crustaceans.

Transport Canada introduced the voluntary measure this year as one of several measures aimed at protecting the critically endangered species, of which there are only about 400 animals remaining.

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The speed restriction applied to vessels longer than 13 metres is in place from April 28 to June 15. Oceana Canada’s study will look at this time frame, chosen to coincide with when the whales are expected to enter and exit the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

North Atlantic right whales first appeared in Canadian waters in early May this year, prompting a temporary closure of fixed-gear fisheries under the new federal rules to protect the whales.

Since 2017, 30 right whales have died in waters off Canada and the United States, with two-thirds of the deaths in Canadian waters.

Ship strikes are the most common causes of death, when a cause can be determined, and fishing entanglements have also killed several of the animals.

Changes to right whale protections were announced in February, with federal officials noting that the whales’ movements in Canadian waters have become difficult to predict.

Elmslie said it’s not entirely clear how the whales use the Cabot Strait, but the passage is the major point of entry into the Gulf of St. Lawrence feeding grounds.

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North Atlantic right whales are difficult to detect because of their dark colouration and lack of a dorsal fine, Elmslie said.

The whales also feed close to the surface and do not vocalize the same way as other whales – all evolutionary disadvantages against large ships that Elmslie said make it necessary to take all possible precautions.

Oceana Canada’s study does not include all vessels because not all are required to use automatic identification systems tracking their voyages in Canadian waters.

Elmslie noted that this season is unusual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen limits on large cruise ships and delayed fishery openings. She said risks to the whales are slightly reduced but are still present, and mandatory measures will likely see greater compliance.

“It’s hard with a voluntary measure, especially in an industry like this where speed really does provide a competitive advantage, so we want to just level the playing field,” she said. “If it’s mandatory, then it’s the law and there are no exceptions.”

Last summer, Transport Canada handed out tens of thousands of dollars in fines for breaking speed restrictions intended to protect right whales – including $18,000 in total for two Canadian Coast Guard ships that sailed too fast through the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

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