Canada urged to expand fisheries closures to save North Atlantic Right Whale

North Atlantic right whale and calf

Image: Mother and calf right whale, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit #15488

For Immediate Release, November 1, 2018

OTTAWA— Wildlife and animal-protection groups submitted recommendations today urging Canada’s fishery management agency to continue and expand protections for critically imperiled North Atlantic right whales. Following an unprecedented 12 right whale deaths in Canadian waters in 2017, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) closed key fishing areas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including in the entanglement-prone snow crab fishery. The agency is now considering measures for the 2019 season.

“The right whale population is plummeting as these incredible animals continue to get entangled in Canadian and U.S. fishing gear,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity and the letter’s author. “Canada and the United States should both do their part to save these endangered whales by closing key habitat areas and moving to ropeless fishing gear. Right whales desperately need quick action.”

Fewer than 440 North Atlantic right whales likely remain. Since 2017, 20 right whales — almost 4 percent of the population — were observed dead, including 12 in Canadian waters. Troublingly, scientists did not document a single right whale birth during the 2017-2018 calving season. At the current rate of decline, the North Atlantic right whale will be functionally extinct within several decades.

“Entanglement in fishing gear is the single biggest threat to the right whale’s survival,” said Jane Davenport of Defenders of Wildlife. “Entanglements can cause immediate death by drowning, or cause longer, drawn-out deaths by injury, infection and starvation. Entanglements also weaken females to the point that they can only calve once every 10 years, instead of every three — if they live that long.”

In recent years right whales have increasingly been sighted in Canada’s cool Atlantic waters, particularly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, likely due to shifting prey. In response to the 2017 deaths, DFO adopted entanglement risk reduction measures in 2018, including season-long (“static”) closures and intermittent (“dynamic”) closures when right whales were present, and in the snow crab fishery, there were line-length limits and gear marking requirements to track the source of entangling gear.         

“Maintaining and expanding closures of key fishing areas is critical given the fact that the right whale population is declining so precipitously,” said Kathryn Kullberg, director of marine and wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States. “It is urgent for Canada and the U.S. to continue to protect these magnificent whales from the suffering they endure while entangled in fishing gear.”

“Highly endangered right whales are in urgent need of increased protections from the Canadian government,” said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International/Canada. “We are calling on Fisheries and Oceans Canada to take strong and effective measures to ensure the survival of these majestic whales.”

It is very likely DFO’s actions reduced the risk of right whale deaths this year. However, since DFO adopted the measures in 2018, two right whales have been found dead with injuries consistent with fishing-gear entanglement, and at least three more have been seen entangled in Canadian waters. And last week a representative of DFO attended a meeting with the fishing industry and reportedly indicated that the government is open to weakening protective measures for right whales.

“Canada’s actions this year definitely kept whales alive, but what Canada does next year and beyond will decide the fate of the entire species,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

“It is simply unacceptable that a government fisheries representative would cave to industry demands,” said Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute. “More restrictions, not fewer, are needed if there is to be any hope for right whales in the North Atlantic.”

In today’s letter the groups urged DFO to maintain the closures and expand them into other areas frequented by right whales in 2019, require comprehensive gear marking in all Atlantic Canadian fisheries, and critically, transition trap/pot fisheries to more protective “ropeless” gear. These measures are needed to ensure Canadian fisheries can continue exporting seafood to the U.S. market, as U.S. law prohibits foreign seafood imports caught in a manner less protective than U.S. requirements for marine mammals.

“We commend the Canadian government for taking swift action this past summer, but these measures must be continued and expanded. It is also imperative that the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service stop their willful foot-dragging and enact similar protections before it’s too late to save this majestic species,” said Erica Fuller of the Conservation Law Foundation.

“The ropeless technology is a lifeline the North Atlantic Right Whale needs for survival,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney with the Marine Mammals program at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Continued leadership is needed from both Canada and the United States. If we fail, we will lose this iconic species.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org

Founded in 1969, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is a global non-profit organization that protects animals and the places they call home. With offices in 15 countries and projects in over 40, we rescue, rehabilitate and release animals into secure landscapes around the world. In collaboration with both governments and local communities, our experienced campaigners, legal and political experts, and internationally acclaimed scientists pioneer lasting solutions to some of the most pressing animal welfare and wildlife conservation issues of our time.

The Humane Society of the United States is the most effective animal protection organization, as rated by our peers. For more than 60 years, we have celebrated the protection of all animals and confronted all forms of cruelty. We and our affiliates are the nation’s largest provider of hands-on services for animals, caring for more than 100,000 animals each year, and we prevent cruelty to millions more through our advocacy campaigns. Read about our more than 60 years of transformational change for animals and people. HumaneSociety.org

Humane Society International and its partners form one of the largest animal protection organizations in the world. For over 25 years, HSI has been conducting research, lobbying and implementing educational and field programs to protect animals of all kinds. Celebrating animals and combatting cruelty—registered online as HSI.org

WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, is the leading global charity dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales and dolphins. WDC’s vision of a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free is not a noble gesture, but a necessary goal for a healthy planet on which humans and wildlife can survive and thrive. We defend these remarkable creatures against the many threats they face through campaigns, advising governments, conservation projects, and research. Visit WDC online at www.whales.org.

Founded in 1947, Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit Newsroom.Defenders.org and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews.

Conservation Law Foundation protects New England’s environment for the benefit of all people, using the law, science, and the market to create solutions that preserve our natural resources, build healthy communities, and sustain a vibrant economy. CLF has taken action to protect right whales for decades, from successfully fighting oil and gas drilling within whales’ habitats, to ensuring offshore wind projects don’t cause harm, to taking on the federal government to protect whales from threats posed by commercial fishing gear.

The Animal Welfare Institute is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. For more information, visit www.awionline.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org