Whale of a cause

The Western Star - - EDITORIAL -

There are a cou­ple of rea­sons why there haven’t been any right whale deaths in wa­ters around the At­lantic prov­inces this year — good luck and good man­age­ment. Last year, an alarm­ing num­ber of en­dan­gered whales died — 13 in Cana­dian wa­ters and five more off the United States. The bod­ies of an­other two whales have shown up in Amer­i­can wa­ters this year, while sev­eral whale en­tan­gle­ment res­cues were car­ried out in the Bay of Fundy.

Only about 450 of the whales, in­clud­ing 100 breed­ing fe­males, re­main. Without greater pro­tec­tion, there’s a con­sen­sus the species will be func­tion­ally ex­tinct in 20 years. Most deaths oc­cur from a com­bi­na­tion of col­li­sions with ships and get­ting caught up in fish­ing gear. Some­thing had to be done.

Last year, Ot­tawa or­dered ships to re­duce speed in At­lantic wa­ters to help the slow-mov­ing ma­rine mam­mals avoid col­li­sions. Fish­er­men were asked to re­duce the amount of gear left in the wa­ter to lessen the chances of en­tan­gle­ment.

There were warn­ing signs from abroad over the whale deaths, in­clud­ing threats about re­stric­tions on Cana­dian seafood from the U.S. and Europe un­less ef­fec­tive con­ser­va­tion and safety mea­sures were put in place.

Since 85 per cent of Cana­dian lob­ster ex­ports go to the U.S., the im­pact would be huge on the East Coast fish­ery if pro­tec­tion mea­sures didn’t sat­isfy the Amer­i­cans.

Ot­tawa had lit­tle choice but to take ac­tion — tem­po­rar­ily clos­ing fish­ing zones this spring wher­ever a whale was spot­ted — mostly off north­east­ern New Brunswick and Gaspé. Lu­cra­tive crab and lob­ster sea­sons were af­fected.

Fish­er­men were hes­i­tant at first, but most got on board and took a proac­tive role in pro­tect­ing the whales and their liveli­hood. It was a dif­fi­cult choice — de­fend the in­come of thou­sands of fish­er­men and plant work­ers or pro­tect North At­lantic right whales from ex­tinc­tion. In the court of world opin­ion, fish­er­men would be the losers.

But govern­ment and in­dus­try co-op­er­ated to achieve the right re­sult de­spite some bumps in road. Then-fish­eries min­is­ter Do­minic LeBlanc was un­der in­tense pres­sure and de­serves credit for stick­ing to his guns.

Sup­port from fish­er­men grew quickly. When the spring lob­ster sea­son wrapped up in the Gulf, more than 30 fish­ing boats helped DFO and Cana­dian Coast Guard per­son­nel in a two-day sweep of the lob­ster grounds, look­ing for miss­ing or for­got­ten lob­ster gear thought to make up 10 per cent of all ma­rine lit­ter.

Fish­ers joined the cause be­cause it was the right thing to do, and be­cause they be­lieve that lob­ster fish­ing and right whales don’t have to be mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive – they can peace­fully co-ex­ist.

Fish­ers un­der­stand the im­por­tance of a balanced and pro­tected ecosys­tem. This year was a learn­ing curve for all groups in pro­tect­ing right whales.

But the ocean is a pub­lic re­source that all Cana­di­ans need to help pro­tect.

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