542 ships accused of breaking whale-protecting speed limit in Gulf of St. Lawrence

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A total of 542 ships were reported for violating the speed limit Transport Canada imposed for part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence last summer to prevent further deaths of endangered North Atlantic right whales.

But the vast majority of the cases have been "closed due to insufficient evidence," a department spokeswoman confirmed to CBC News early Tuesday evening.

To date, only 14 vessels have been fined the minimum $6,000 each.

Thirty-four cases are "under review" and 44 cases are "pending review," said Julie Leroux.

"All other cases have been closed," she said.

At least 17 North Atlantic right whales died in Canadian and U.S. waters last summer.

Necropsies on seven of the carcasses showed four died of blunt force trauma from collisions with ships, while the other three appear to have died from being entangled in fishing gear.

There are only about 500 of the species left in the world.

On Aug. 11, Transport Canada ordered all vessels of 20 metres or more in length to restrict their speed to 10 knots (about 18.5 kilometres an hour) while travelling in the western part of the gulf, from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island.

Ships that size would normally travel at around 18 knots.

The mandatory slowdown replaced a voluntary one the government had requested a month prior.

A report to the minister, obtained by CBC News earlier this week through Access to Information, showed there were 89 "incidents of non-compliance" within the first three weeks of the speed limit being imposed.

Asked how many other vessels exceeded the limit, Leroux said Tuesday a total of 542 cases were reported between Aug. 11 and Jan. 11, when the restriction was lifted.

The vessels included cruise ships, cargo ships, an oil tanker and even a coast guard vessel. 

The Canadian Coast Guard's Marine Communications and Traffic Services, or MCTS, tracked ships in real-time during their transit and then advised Transport Canada's Marine Safety and Security of cases of non-compliance, according to the obtained document.

'Compliance verification process'

But a "compliance verification process" follows, said Leroux.

It requires "a review of the vessel track based on Automated Identification System data collected by the Canadian Coast Guard (i.e., time, latitude/longitude, speed over ground)," she said.

"If enough evidence exists, a marine safety inspector contacts the vessel and may be dispatched to collect additional data, including the log book, and speak to the master regarding the vessel speed to corroborate all information," said Leroux.

"Following this verification, if there are clear grounds [of non-compliance] the [marine safety inspector] may proceed with an enforcement action," an administrative monetary penalty, the document states.

Fines range from $6,000 to $25,000, depending on the speed and number of infractions.

Eleven of the 14 fines issued to date were for speeds of between 10.5 knots and 13.3 knots, Leroux has said.

She could not provide the speeds related to the other three fines because those cases are still within the 30-day appeal period.

It's unclear how fast the 34 vessels "under review" and 44 "pending review" were travelling.

The speed restriction was lifted last week "to ensure ships can maintain manoeuvrability in winter conditions and for the safety of those operating in Canadian waters," Transport Canada Minister Marc Garneau has said.

In addition, North Atlantic right whales have not been seen in the gulf since the beginning of December, and are not expected when pack ice is present, a department spokeswoman said.

CBC New Brunswick launched Deep Trouble: a podcast series that brings together the interviews and stories by CBC journalists who covered a deadly summer for the North Atlantic right whale. Listen to the full discussion and subscribe to the Deep Trouble podcast from the CBC Podcast page or subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.