On Monday, August 29, a Zodiac captain working for Croisières Essipit and a passenger were thrown overboard from their tour boat after a collision. They were quickly rescued and rushed to the health centre in Les Escoumins and fortunately are believed to have suffered only minor injuries. According to witness testimony and the damage to the boat, it was most likely a collision with a whale. What species of whale was it? Did it sustain any injuries? Did the captain obey the rules of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park and the Eco-Whale Alliance’s code of conduct? It is too early to tell. A team of investigators from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) was present on Tuesday to determine the circumstances of the incident, which will also be investigated by marine park rangers.

Pending the findings and lessons that might be learned from this incident, the whalesonline.org team wanted to share with the public important information to better understand the incident and initiate a reflection for the future.

© GREMM
© GREMM

The incident occurred in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, an area that harbours a high concentration of whales this time of year. Whales congregate in large numbers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the summer to feed, an activity that takes place to a large extent near the surface, where they are susceptible to collisions. As anywhere in the world where such concentrations of cetaceans are found, the risks of collision are real. As recalled by Richard Sears of the Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS) during a similar incident that occurred in Mexico last year, “in general it isn’t the whales that collide with boats, but rather the opposite. The boats are often too close or moving too fast. You always have to be careful whenever there’s a chance of encountering a whale.”

Parks Canada has maintained an inventory of collisions in the Marine Park since 1992. These data show that collisions occur regularly in the park, at least one a year. There have already been three such incidents since the start of the 2016 season. However, this is the first time that a collision in the Marine Park has resulted in injury to a passenger. In other regions of the world, collisions with marine mammals are also regularly reported, but incidents causing injuries to passengers are relatively rare.

A number of measures and regulations have already been implemented to reduce the risk of collisions. Adopted in 2002, the Marine Activities in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park Regulations (MAR), stipulate various speed limits depending on the situation. For example, it is forbidden for watercraft within the park to travel at speeds greater than 25 knots, or 10 knots if the boat is at an observation site, defined as a radius of one nautical mile (1852 m) around a boat in the process of observing a marine mammal. The MAR also prohibit sailing in excess of the minimum operating speed within 100-400 m of a cetacean, and imposes a 400 m limit for the observation of an endangered marine mammal, namely belugas, blue whales and right whales.

In its revised version, the MAR increased the radius of the observation sites where speeds are limited to 10 knots from 1 nautical mile to 0.5 nautical miles. Furthermore, the new version of the MAR will limit speeds to 15 knots in the mouth of the Saguenay, which is heavily frequented by whales.

© GREMM
© GREMM

Following a joint effort led by Parks Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and a group of scientists from the Université de Montréal and the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), the maritime industry adopted voluntary steps to reduce speeds (in French) of merchant vessels in certain areas of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park with a high density of whales, mainly with the aim of limiting the risk of ship strikes. This has led to an average speed reduction from 12 to 10 knots and demonstrates that voluntary measures can also be effective.

The Eco-Whale Alliance was created in 2011 to promote environmentally responsible whale-watching in the Marine Park. In 2011, the Alliance released the Guide for Eco-Responsible Practices for Captains/Naturalists (summary; full pdf version in French here), a complementary tool to laws and regulations, developed in collaboration with captains to facilitate the adoption of exemplary behaviour on the water. Following the formation of the Alliance, training courses for captains have also increased.

Robert Michaud, GREMM President and Scientific Director and witness to the evolution of whale-watching activities in the St. Lawrence since the early 1980s, expressed relief that the incident did not cause any serious injuries, while hoping the same held true for the whale. Without knowing the specific circumstances of this incident, Mr. Michaud reminds us that anyone sailing within the Marine Park runs a certain risk of such an incident. However, he wishes to reiterate that the best precaution is to stay alert and slow down. Similar to the maritime industry and in the spirit of the Eco-Whale Alliance, he encourages companies and captains to adopt voluntary speed reductions in the Marine Park, perhaps to 15 or 20 knots, and a reinstatement of the precautionary zones of one nautical mile around observation sites in which speeds would be reduced to 10 knots.

To learn more:

On Whales Online:

Best practices in Quebec

Marine Park regulations

Eco-Whale Alliance (in French)

Working Group on Marine Traffic and Protection of Marine Mammals

In the media:

Collision between Zodiac and Whale (TVA, August 30, 2016) (in French)

Zodiac Stikes Whale off the Coast of Les Bergeronnes (Radio-Canada, August 29, 2016) (in French)

News - 31/8/2016

Béatrice Riché

Béatrice Riché has served as editor for the GREMM in 2016. She holds an MSc in environmental science and has spent several years working abroad in the fields of resource conservation, species at risk and climate change. Back on the shores of the St. Lawrence, which she keeps watch over every day, Béatrice writes columns on whales, drawing inspiration from events taking place here and afar.

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