Canadian Fisheries Regulators Take New Steps Aimed At Protecting Right Whales

Feb 28, 2020

Canadian fisheries regulators are taking new steps aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales from entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes. These steps include temporary closures of certain lobster and crab fishing areas.

In this April 10, 2008 file photo, the head of a North Atlantic right whale peers up from the water as another whale passes behind in Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown, Mass.
Credit Stephan Savoia / AP Images

Most of the right whales found dead over the past four years have been found off Canada — likely because climate-driven shifts in their prey's abundance have led them to new feeding grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where managers were initially unprepared for their arrival.

Bernadette Jordan, Canada's Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, announced new protective measures in Ottawa Thursday.

"What we've learned throughout this time is that these marine mammals are unpredictable and no longer aggregate or feed in the same areas they once did,” Jordan says. “It's why each season our measures change and evolve to be more effective than they were the year before."

But eight of the whales were found dead in Canadian waters last year. This season, Jordan says, the government is imposing new methodologies for closing areas to the snow crab and lobster industries. They include a requirement that when a whale is detected in a particular area of the Bay of Fundy or Gulf of St. Lawrence, that area must be closed to fixed-trap fishing gear for 15 days. And if there is a second detection in that period, the area will be closed until mid-November.

The measures are getting mixed reviews from conservationists who supported a previous policy of permanent closures in some areas.

"Any line in the water creates the risk of entanglement," says Kristen Monsell,  a lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity.

"It means that gear and whales will already be overlapping before a management measure is triggered, and that's a serious concern," Monsell says.

Canadian officials also say that Canadian fishermen must start putting new marks on their gear starting in 2021, to help identify where whales may have been entangled. That will bring Canada more in line with gear marking regimes that Maine and other New England states are deploying this year.

Better identification of where entangling rope comes from could help answer the contentious question of whether whales are more at risk of injury and death when in U.S. or Canadian waters. Canada must prove its conservation measures are at least as effective as those in the United States by 2021, or face significant trade sanctions.

Originally posted 3:14 p.m. Feb. 28, 2020