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Canadian government announces measures to protect North Atlantic right whales

Steps in the right direction or too little too late?

Today, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans outlined four immediate measures being put into place before the 2018 Canadian snow crab fishing season to protect North Atlantic right whales from fishing gear entanglements in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: 

Gear changes for snow crab fishery in Canada

  • Reduction in the amount of floating line at the surface to 3.7m (12 feet)
  • Requiring specific gear marking (coloring) on vertical lines to identify the fishing region of origin
  • Requiring a sequential number marking on buoys identifying the individual crab trap
  • Requiring fishers to report lost gear including the gear’s last known GPS location

These measures come on the heels of the worst year faced by the critically endangered whales, with the loss of over 3% of the entire species due to human causes.  12 of the 17 dead right whales found in 2017 were located in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence with vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements implicated as the leading causes of death

Department of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc indicated that additional measures are being considered but fell short of committing to what they would be.  Among those to which Minister LeBlanc did not commit included:  when and if disentanglement efforts will resume in Canadian waters, whether the 10 knot ship strike speed reduction rule will be reinstated, and a robust survey and monitoring plan.   

Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) welcomes these first steps but does not believe they are sufficient to prevent the extinction of North Atlantic right whales, a species with fewer than 450 remaining, whose decline is primarily from human causes. WDC is urging international protections for this transboundary species; measures in both Canada and the United States must be implemented to save these whales from extinction.

To date, the United States National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency charged with protecting whales, has not yet announced any specific additional measures to reduce risk to right whales.  While the Agency has indicated it is considering further actions, it has not provided any substantive plans, which led to a coalition of conservation groups filing suit against NMFS for failing to protect the species from entanglements in the American Lobster Fishery. 

North Atlantic right whale

At the same time, the Trump Administration has proposed to significantly expand offshore oil and gas development including the waters along the US east coast, the primary habitat for right whales; meanwhile Congress has proposed revisions to the US Marine Mammal Protection Act that would fast-track seismic air gun surveys and other activities in the ocean that can harm whales, dolphins, and the entire marine ecosystem. Conservation groups, including WDC, are fighting these proposals to protect whales and dolphins from the risk of seismic exploration and potential oil spills. 

“What Canada has announced today are important first steps but they are only first steps” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s North American office.  “Without substantial international actions, these measures alone are like painting a house when the roof has blown off and the foundation has crumbled. Right whales can be saved, but it’s going to take more than a coat of paint; we need a new foundation in endangered species conservation.”