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Canada's birthday this year will bring an unusual gift to one of the world's most critically endangered whales: a long-sought change in international shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy that scientists hope will help keep the massive marine mammals from playing on a marine superhighway.

The change, mandated by the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, kicks in just after midnight Greenwich Mean Time on July 1, 2003 (around 9 p.m. Atlantic time on June 30). The shift in routes will be announced this week.

Moira Brown, a marine biologist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., said that at least three of the nearly extinct right whales have been killed by ships in the Bay of Fundy over the past 10 years. Combined with the deaths from being caught in fishing gear, this is a dangerous hit for a fragile population.

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"We really need every animal," said Dr. Brown, one of the main researchers on right whales and the force behind the lane-change.

Conservationists at the World Wildlife Fund, who helped organize the change, say it's the first time an international shipping route has been shifted for the sake of preserving wildlife. It is happening on Canada's birthday by fluke.

The problem is that the right whale of the North Atlantic was harpooned so efficiently in earlier centuries that no more than 350 are left, making it perilously close to extinction and vulnerable to disease. In fact, it is called the "right" whale because it was so easy to hunt for its oil and baleen in the 16th century.

A healthier, completely separate population of about 8,000 right whales lives in the Southern Hemisphere and another handful exists in the Bering Sea.

But the tiny North Atlantic population is one of the most endangered of the great whales of the sea. It's such a small population that the Center for Coastal Studies has photographs and other mechanisms to identify each right whale in this group.

A couple of hundred of these rare creatures like to spend their summers playing near a plankton-rich sea gyre in the Bay of Fundy, the stretch of water between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

The catch is that this whale playground is in the middle of a busy shipping route, largely for products carried in the big ships of Irving Oil Ltd., based on the bay in Saint John.

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The shipping lanes, akin to an eight-lane highway, were set 20 years ago by the International Marine Organization. The system is designed to prevent shipping accidents and cannot be deviated from without a fiat from the same organization, a complex process, Dr. Brown said.

So about five years ago, Dr. Brown told Irving Oil: "Here's the problem: Ships and whales are in the same place."

The big oil company was aghast. It set one of its senior officers, John Logan, on the file. He discovered that no technology exists to warn ships of the presence of whales in the water, so he joined the think tank that Dr. Brown put together to figure out what else could be done.

Finally, they came up with the idea of narrowing the shipping lanes and shifting them to the east by four nautical miles, which would reduce the risk of hitting a whale by 80 per cent. "It was the right thing to do," Mr. Logan said.

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