LOOKING BACK & FORWARD– Right Whales Lay Claim to Historic Grounds

Right Whale at Head Harbour Lighthouse. Danielle Dion photo.


16 years ago, the battle against LNG development at Eastport, Maine required proof that Right Whales were common at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. 

Memories From 2006

Ever since LNG “carpetbaggers” Smith (Quoddy Bay LNG) and Girdis (Downeast LNG) decided to favour Passamaquoddy Bay with 2 LNG terminals and the promise of a huge LNG tanker virtually every day, there has been an ongoing debate about where endangered Northern Right Whales actually hang out here in the Quoddy Region.

Some of us old professionals have pointed out that right whales, fins, and minkes commonly foraged down into Head Harbour Passage as far as Friars Roads and even, on occasion, up into lower Passamaquoddy Bay itself. They commonly occurred just offshore of Head Harbour towards Grand Manan Banks and we encountered Rights in this area frequently while we were doing our biological surveys and collections in the 60s, 70s and early 80s.

During this time some “new biologists” came and established this area as their “territory:. They did good things too. Moved the Fundy Traffic Lanes towards Nova Scotia to avoid the current concentrations of Right Whales at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy and established a Right Whale sanctuary in the area where they found concentrations. Unfortunately, this played into the hands of the LNG developers who ensured everyone that their route would miss “ecologically sensitive areas” such as the Right Whale sanctuary.

And people bought into the idea that industry was “saving the whales”. I was told by a Canadian Coast Guard official that whales didn’t occur in Head Harbour Passage. A desk-jockey that had all the answers!!

Efforts to inform officials about the historic distribution of Right Whales met with contrary public statements from the “new biologists”. Well, the Right Whales have just staked out their historical birthright …. right at the 2 proposed LNG tanker routes into Passamaquoddy Bay. For a month now as many as 30, possibly up to 50, Right Whales have been feeding in Grand Manan Channel right up to Head Harbour Lighthouse, into Head Harbour Passage, in the open water from there to the mainland New Brunswick shore and in close to land all the way from Blacks Harbour to Maces Bay.

The rights have “spoken”. This is their home territory and we are bound by international law, morals, and good sense to protect them from any industrial port growth in Passamaquoddy Bay, particularly LNG.

Concerns Today

Fortunately a concerted coalition of locals managed to defeat LNG in Passamaquoddy Bay, but presently another challenge has emerged as the Right Whales have moved north into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. What has caused this? Is it aquaculture waste, commercial and domestic waste, ocean warming or some other factor that has caused this? Perhaps it is a combination of all of these factors.

Certainly things have changed. Back a few decades, there were feeding concentrations consisting of thousands of seabirds, particularly phalaropes which were sometimes present in the millions. The place was alive and fishermen caught tons of herring in Passamaquoddy Bay and up the St. Croix Estuary to Oak Bay and The Ledge. This was only a few short decades ago.

And then it changed. Something happened – near-shore pollution, nutrient loading – whatever it was the plankton populations dropped, the phalaropes in essence disappeared, the herring stayed offshore, fishing in inner Passamaquoddy Bay dropped to near zdero and the Right Whales came in only occasionally.

Today in 2022, impacts have been reduced … but still exist. But the Right Whales continue to move north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Looking for Answers,

Art MacKay

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