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IN DEPTH: Federal government implements new measures to protect right whales

“Every time they lose one, it's another from the breeding population. And there are only about 90 breeding females.”
- Susanna Fuller, scientist with Oceans North

The North Atlantic right whale has become Atlantic Canada’s latest marine tragedy. Summer after summer, stories of these large creatures washing ashore, dead, tangled in fishing gear or with no discernible cause of death has caused the already fragile species to decline to worrying levels. It's estimated only 400 remain.

Even with a promising increase in births this year, Susanna Fuller, a scientist with Oceans North, said it’s a precarious situation.

“Every time they lose one, it's another from the breeding population. And there are only about 90 breeding females.”

The year 2017 brought public attention to the issue, with 17 confirmed dead right whales, 12 of them in Canada.

Now there have been a total of 30 deaths between Canadian and U.S. waters.

Lawmakers have been trying to keep up by introducing measures such as fisheries closures and removing abandoned gear from the water, but it hasn’t been enough — after a dip in deaths in 2018, 2019 saw nine deaths in Canadian waters.

“Right whales used to be in the Bay of Fundy where the lobster fishing season doesn't totally overlap with the whale migration. Bay of Fundy fishermen knew how to deal with them and there weren't really more than two to four deaths for several years before that,” Fuller said. “Then they moved to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in 2017 that's where most of them died.”

Facing pressure from environmental organizations, Indigenous communities, academia and fishermen, who were concerned not only about the whales but about their future fishing in these areas, the federal government on Thursday announced new measures to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale in Canadian waters.

These measures, starting this spring, replace static closures with closures that only affect areas where whales are actually aggregating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Bay of Fundy.

According to Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, if a single whale is detected by aerial monitoring or underwater acoustics in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a protective area around it of approximately 2,000 square kilometres will be closed, and fish harvesters must remove their fixed gear from the area for 15 days. If multiple whales are detected in the same area more than once during a 15-day period, the area will close until Nov. 15.

If whales are detected in the Bay of Fundy, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) will implement a fishing closure of at least 15 days.

DFO will use visual sightings from aircraft and vessels as well as drones and acoustic surveillance using underwater microphones to alert officials of the presence of whales in the closure areas.

“What we've learned throughout this time is that these marine mammals are unpredictable and no longer aggregate or feed at the same areas they once did. It's why each season our measures change and evolve,” Jordan said.

The federal government is also working with a third-party icebreaker to open local harbours for spring fishing activities in northern New Brunswick around the Acadian Peninsula, Baie des Chaleurs and Northumberland Strait to ensure the snow crab fishery in the region can start as early as possible before the whales’ arrival in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, so there is less impact on the fishing season.

New marking requirements

Above: A right whale caught in a steel rope attached to a crab pot approximately 25 nautical miles east of Cape Breton in 2015.

Also this season, new gear-marking requirements will come into effect for all fixed-gear fisheries in Atlantic Canada and Quebec to help officials determine if an entanglement occurs in Canada or in the U.S. and to help further refine fishing management policies.

The federal government also says it’s working with industry over the next year to identify ways to modify fishing gear, so if an entanglement does occur, it causes less harm — things such as weaker rope breaking points, rope reduction and maximum rope diameter.

Jordan said many of these changes were discussed during the Gear Innovation Summit that happened in Halifax earlier this month. She expects these modifications to be phased in over time, with some starting early next year.

“I think the understanding of the urgency in the fishing industry and the shipping industry is high... The reality is it's going to impact people who are on the water more than others.”

- Susanna Fuller, scientist with Oceans North

Jordan MacDougall, president of the Inverness South Fishermen’s Association, who fishes snow crab and lobster in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, said the right whale deaths put the fishing industry between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, he understands the importance of protecting right whales and other endangered species, but he has obvious concerns about how the situation may affect his livelihood.

“The industry is a little frustrated with it. It's a lot of measures, but it's a big picture thing,” MacDougall said.

He also doesn’t want to lose an important trading partner — by 2022, all countries that export to the U.S. will have to demonstrate their fisheries have marine mammal protections that are equivalent to that of the U.S.

MacDougall said he’s at least happy the government is making an effort to only close areas where whales are spotted.

“There's no need of closing areas where there's no risk of them getting entangled,” he said.

It’s not just the fishing industry that’s expected to do its part — the shipping industry is also facing a number of new measures. Transport Canada is placing a number of new and expanded temporary speed restrictions on vessels longer than 13 metres in certain areas, including the western Gulf of St. Lawrence, Shediac Valley and Cabot Strait as well as shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island when a North Atlantic right whale is detected.

Fuller said she believes these new measures are an improvement over last year, but their success will depend on proper surveillance and co-operation from industry.

“I think the understanding of the urgency in the fishing industry and the shipping industry is high,” she said. “The reality is it's going to impact people who are on the water more than others.”

Jordan said while nobody can predict what's going to happen this season, she is confident these new measures will help.

“We will continue to monitor that as we go forward over the next few seasons and every year we're checking to see how we can make this better,” she said.


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