The first time I saw a whale was in Tadousac, Quebec. My partner and I had stopped for the night on our way to a friend’s house in Riviere-au-Tonnere, farther up the north shore. After a long day in the car, we stretched our legs with a walk along the huge rocks where the Saguenay and St. Lawrence Rivers meet.
Suddenly, a whale breached just feet away from us. The creature was so large and magnificent it literally took my breath away, and the memory of that surreal moment has stayed with me.
My friend John Wise, who does not often travel far from his organic farm in eastern Ontario, saw his first whale three years ago when he and his partner travelled to New Brunswick. In his words:
“It was a timeless moment of witness to a mystery of power, grace and otherworldliness.”
When right can be wrong
In the years since my first sighting of a whale, I have seen a few more off the coast of Newfoundland and have been overwhelmed every time.
I have also learned about the vulnerability of whales to the impact of human activity. These may be the largest animals on the planet, but we have managed to turn their environments into spaces that challenge their survival.
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where many of the few remaining North American right whales spend their summers. Once numbering in the many tens of thousands, only about 450 of these whales, now an endangered species, exist today, and they are dying faster than they are reproducing.
These slow-swimming baleen whales apparently got their name because, due to the amount of oil and blubber (40% of their body weight is blubber) their bodies can provide, they were the “right” whales to hunt. They are huge whales, growing to more than 18 metres in length and weighing up to 91 tons, making them second only to the blue whale in body mass.
A killing field
While they have been heavily hunted for centuries, the rate of their destruction has speeded up considerably in the past 50 years. Some die of old age or as a result of pollution, but most of the right whales that die in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are killed because they are hit by ships or as a result of becoming entangled in the ropes used by fishing trawlers.
In 2017, 12 right whales died in Canadian waters, leading the federal government to implement its Action Plan for the North American Right Whale in Canada. This strategy reduced the maximum speed at which large ships could travel in the St. Lawrence, created a 100-metre buffer zone between boats and whales, limited the amount of rope that could be left on the water’s surface to 3.7 metres and instituted aerial surveillance and underwater listening devices to better track the whales’ movement.
In 2018, no right whales died in Canadian waters. The plan was working.
But, in February 2019, the Prime Minister announced the elimination of some of these strategies, in response to complaints from fisheries as well as cruise ship companies, some of which had stopped coming into the St. Lawrence because of the reduced maximum speed.
You can imagine what has happened. Already this year, six right whales have died in Canadian waters, four of them in a 48-hour period during the week of June 24. Another whale is missing, after having been spotted entangled in fishing ropes.
Now, interim speed reductions have been put in place in two shipping lanes – one north and one south of Anticosti Island – to be imposed when a whale is spotted in the area.
The sixth whale killed last week appears in the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life’s Catalogue as # 3450. She was named Clipper by the Center’s staff because part of her tail had been clipped during a previous encounter with a ship. (The Center works to develop “practical solutions to mitigate human impacts on our oceans.”)
My partner and I came upon Clipper on the beach near Grand Etang, in the Gaspesie, as she was undergoing a necropsy, which has tentatively concluded that she was killed as a result of blunt force trauma suffered when she was struck by a vessel.
I don’t have the words to describe how awful the scene on that beach was. As we joined a small group of observers, silently bearing witness to the needless death of this magnificent creature, it felt as though all the air had been sucked out of the sky. What had been a beautiful, sunny morning had turned into something very dark. What had been something I read about in the media had suddenly turned very real.
What to do, then? The federal government has responsibility for regulating the fisheries and movement of ships in the St. Lawrence and other waters where whales are being killed, but these deaths are unlikely to become a major issue in the upcoming federal election.
Despite a 1986 ban on commercial whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission, Japan, Norway and Iceland – a recent darling of eco-tourists — continue to engage in this practice. Perhaps we need to boycott travel to those countries.
We can buy only products endorsed by the Ocean Wise Seafood Program, which includes the impact on other species in its four criteria for recommending fish and seafood.
Learn more about Sea Choice, an organization working to position Canada as “a global leader in environmental conservation and social responsibility in seafood production and procurement.”
It’s too late for Clipper and the five other right whales already killed this year, but it’s not too late for the rest of their species.