Help­ing right whales right

New im­port pro­vi­sions to the US and an in­crease in sci­en­tific study are de­mand­ing the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment take ac­tion to pro­tect the en­dan­gered ma­rine mam­mals.


When Fish­eries min­is­ter Do­minic LeBlanc re­cently took the podium and de­scribed the “ab­so­lutely ma­jes­tic sight” of wit­ness­ing 15 right whales dur­ing an aerial tour of Mis­cou Island off the north­east tip of New Brun­wick, you had to be im­pressed. He shut down the lu­cra­tive snow crab in­dus­try early and com­mit­ted “all the re­sources nec­es­sary” and “ev­ery pos­si­ble mea­sure” to save the world’s 500 right whales. Ten of them were killed this year in Cana­dian wa­ters due to col­li­sions and fish­ing gear en­tan­gle­ments.

LeBlanc even cited Canada’s Species At Risk Act. He ne­glected to men­tion, how­ever, new im­port pro­vi­sions in the United States’ Ma­rine Mam­mals Pro­tec­tion Act, added in Au­gust 2016, which ban the im­port of fish from fish­eries that don’t match Amer­i­can stan­dards for pro­tect­ing whales and dol­phins.

In other words, if Canada’s fish isn’t proven sus­tain­able, it can’t ex­port to the cru­cial and mas­sive US mar­ket.

“The Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fish­ery and the Sco­tian Shelf snow crab fish­ery are both cur­rently be­ing as­sessed for a sec­ond five-year Ma­rine Ste­war­ship Coun­cil cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pe­riod,” says Shan­non Arnold, a ma­rine pol­icy ex­pert with the Ecol­ogy Ac­tion Cen­tre. “Snow crab gear was found on some of the whales. These fish­eries are wor­ried about los­ing their mar­ket in the Euro­pean Union... while ev­ery­one is fig­ur­ing this out.”

The new rules should ul­ti­mately im­pact all our fish­eries, but with the hack­les raised around right whales, snow crab and gill­net fish­ing could re­ceive par­tic­u­lar scru­tiny. They’ve been associated with right whale en­tan­gle­ments. There is a lot of money at stake for Canada, but it likely wasn’t Canada that the US Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion had in mind when it ini­ti­ated these pro­vi­sions.

“It was south­east Asian coun­tries like China,” says Sean Bril­liant, man­ager of ma­rine pro­grams at the Cana­dian Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion. “But Canada ex­ports a lot of seafood and was re­quired to sub­mit a re­port in the spring.”

The re­port needs to show that each of our fish­eries demon­strates means of mit­i­gat­ing by­catch—un­in­ten­tional mor­tal­i­ties for ma­rine mam­mals. Given that 10 of the re­cent 13 right whale deaths oc­curred in our wa­ters, and that these mor­tal­i­ties—along with its own new im­port pro­vi­sions—spurred NOAA into launch­ing an in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion, demon­strat­ing sus­tain­able fish­eries will be a tall task for Canada. And there’s big money on the line (pun noted, but un­in­tended). You can see why min­is­ter LeBlanc is so im­pas­sioned.

Me­gan Les­lie, for­mer Hal­i­fax MP and a se­nior ad­vi­sor for the World Wildlife Foun­da­tion, says that what­ever is caus­ing the ap­par­ent in­crease in right whale traf­fic in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, there is a straight­for­ward prob­lem to be dealt with.

“Whether it’s ship strikes–blunt force trauma was de­ter­mined by at least one necropsy– or en­tan­gle­ment in fish­ing gear–one whale was tan­gled for two weeks be­fore it died–it’s hu­man ac­tiv­ity.”

Bril­liant wel­comes the in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause there is much we still don’t know. Sci­en­tists have a lot of data on right whales in the Bay of Fundy, but the cur­rent fo­cus is on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“A lot of peo­ple are say­ing now the whales are in the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” he says, “but it’s the sci­en­tists who have changed dis­tri­bu­tion. We haven’t sur­veyed there be­fore. Till now it’s only been shore-based ob­ser­va­tion.” Now there are glid­ers do­ing aerial sur­veys. So it’s pos­si­ble that right whales liv­ing and dy­ing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence isn’t new, only our aware­ness of it is.

“On the other hand,” Bril­liant says, “the fish­er­men say they haven’t seen this ex­tent of right whales there be­fore. We also know that right whales left the Bay of Fundy 12 or 15 years ago; this could be part of a reg­u­lar cy­cle.”

Re­gard­less of the un­der­ly­ing cause, Bril­liant says in­com­plete knowl­edge is not a rea­son for in­ac­tion and he hopes the new pro­vi­sions of the Ma­rine Mam­mals Pro­tec­tion Act, and NOAA’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into right whale mor­tal­i­ties, prompts pre­ven­ta­tive ac­tion from the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment.

“They’ve done noth­ing even though it’s been a known prob­lem for 10 years. To be fair, it’s a dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment now with a dif­fer­ent phi­los­o­phy, and they took the new [US] reg­u­la­tions se­ri­ously.”

The Cana­dian Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion wants key fish­ing ar­eas, well-stud­ied ones in and around the Bay of Fundy, in­clud­ing Grand Manan Bay and Rose­way Bay, “tem­porar­ily omit­ted” dur­ing July, Au­gust and Septem­ber, when whale traf­fic is high.

“This would re­duce risk”—of fa­tal en­coun­ters with fish­ing boats and gear—“by al­most a third, which would have a sub­stan­tial conservation ben­e­fit for the whales,” says Bril­liant, who points out that our thriv­ing lob­ster fish­eries un­dergo sim­i­lar sum­mer and fall clo­sures.

What­ever eco­nomic mo­ti­va­tions are tan­gled up (pun in­tended this time) in Canada’s re­newed ea­ger­ness to save the whales, we as a na­tion should em­brace it. “It’s en­tirely likely that right whales will go ex­tinct in our life­time, on our watch,” Bril­liant says. “If Canada lets it hap­pen it’ll be our na­tional shame.”


Sean Bril­liant is man­ager of ma­rine pro­grams for the CWF.

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