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This dead right whale calf had injuries consistent with a vessel strike, including fresh propeller cuts on its back and head, broken ribs, and bruising. Photo: FWC/Tucker Joenz, NOAA Fisheries permit #18786

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Canada makes significant efforts to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales

March 28, 2018- Canadian officials announced today they will reinstate or implement new measures to protect the remaining critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. In the past 11 months, at least 18 right whales died with 12 of these whales dying in only a three month period in Atlantic Canada. The remaining six were found along the US east coast. Based on the results of necropsies (animal autopsies), the leading causes of death were entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes. 

Last October, WDC and our partners sent a formal appeal to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s Minister Dominic LeBlanc, and Transport Canada Minister Marc Garneau outlining Canada’s legal obligation to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales and requesting that Canada implement additional, mandatory measures to protect the species from vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements. 

Canada’s Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Transport Canada Minister Marc Garneau have now outlined a series of measures to reduce the risk of entanglements and vessel strikes to right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence:  

Designated 10 knot vessel speed restriction zones

  • An earlier opening of the Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery in Area 12. The snow crab fishery  operates as a derby fishery with quotas. By opening early, this creates the potential for the fishery to meet its quota before right whales arrive in the area.  
  • Investing in research of new gear.  This includes testing “ropeless” traps which eliminate the vertical (buoy) line and eliminate the risk of a whale becoming entangled.  Two different methods of “ropeless” technology will be tested this spring
  • Removing fishing gear from right whale habitat earlier.  All snow crab gear will be removed from the water by June 30th, two weeks earlier than previously required.  
  • Prohibiting fishing in right whale foraging habitat.  Beginning on April 28, a portion of the Area 12 fishing region will be closed in anticipation of the return of whales to this important feeding habitat as they did in 2017. 
  • Dynamic closures in areas where right whales are found.  For fisheries which use fixed fishing gear, dynamic (temporary) closures will be put in place for a minimum of 15 days when right whales are observed.  The closures will only be lifted when no right whales are observed by two aerial surveys.  
  • Issuing licensing requirements to better track the gear of individual snow crab fishers
  • Increasing reporting requirements of snow crab fishing activities
  • Requiring all commercial fishers to report interactions with marine mammals
  • Reinstating disentanglements and properly funding efforts.  After the tragic death last year of Joe Howlett, a trained disentanglement responder, during a right whale disentanglement, Canada prohibited further disentanglements pending a full report of the incident.  Canada has now allocated funding of one million dollars per year to marine mammal response programs to enable the safe and proper response to entangled and stranded whales.  
  • Implementing a vessel speed limit requirement.  Between April 28th  and November 15th, a 10 knot speed restriction for all vessels 20m (65 feet) or greater will be instituted in a designated area of the western Gulf of St. Lawrence. The speed restriction will begin earlier if right whale sightings are reported.  A similar seasonal speed reduction rule has been in place along the US east coast since 2008, reducing the risk of ship strike to right whales by 80-90%. 
  • Dynamic speed restrictions in designated shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island.  If right whales are seen in or near one of the designated speed restriction zones (A, B, C, or D), a 10kt speed restriction will be implemented for a minimum of 15 days.  
  • Considerably increasing aerial and on the water surveillance for right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  

Earlier this month, the Marine Stewardship Council suspended its sustainable seafood certification of Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab in response to multiple fatal entanglements of right whales in the fishery. Fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales remain and the population has been in decline since 2010 as a result of human activities.  Tragically, no new calves have been born to the population this year, further raising concerns for the recovery of the species. 

While Canada has now taken significant and meaningful steps toward saving North Atlantic right whales, the United States has yet to introduce any new measures toward reducing entanglements in US waters.  North Atlantic right whales cross the US-Canada border and are only found along the US east coast and Atlantic Canadian waters.

“The Canadian measures announced today are a substantial step toward saving this species”, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, WDC-NA executive director. “Saving North Atlantic right whales is not complicated; we just need to stop killing them faster than they can reproduce. It’s your move U.S.”   

Since its incorporation in 2005, WDC’s North American office has run a dedicated program to save this imperiled species and worked to implement protective measures to save right whales from those threats. If you would like to help save North Atlantic right whales from extinction, please consider donating to support the work of WDC.