Protecting right whales – a balanced plan for 2019

Fishers and scientists are on board with changes to the way the federal government will protect North Atlantic right whales in the 2019 season.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced the changes in Shippagan last Thursday.

In 2017, twelve North Atlantic right whales (NARW) were found dead in Canadian waters, prompting a suite of new protection measures enacted in 2018. The global population is estimated to be at 411.

On the whole, most of the protective measures will stay in place, but some have been loosened based on data collected last season and in consultation with marine scientists and fisheries associations.

A balanced plan

The federal government’s comprehensive response to the right whale crisis proved successful — no North Atlantic right whales were killed in Canadian waters in 2018.

It didn’t come without a cost, however, as lobster and crab fishers in New Brunswick and along the Gulf of St. Lawrence struggled amid closures they argued were too rigid.

This year, the federal government sought a greater balance, and seems to have found it.

Confidence in habitat range

Aircraft under control of the government logged more than 2,075 hours tracking right whales last year. During the prime fishing season, 90 per cent of the species were sighted along an elongated north-to-south area near Caraquet, N.B.

The government announced it is therefore reducing the static closure to all non-tended fixed-gear fisheries to this area, a 63 per cent reduction from last year. With the government’s robust efforts in their collection of aerial surveys, marine scientists are confident the proposed change will ensure the whales’ survival.

Fishers, who had asked for loosened restrictions on fishing in shallower waters when whales are spotted in the gulf, are also applauding the changes. “We could live with that this year. It’s better than last year,” Rejean Comeau, the president of Local 1 of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, told CBC News“We are happy.”

Réjean Comeau, president of Local 1 of the Maritimes Fishermen’s Union (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC).

Changed and remaining measures
  • The remains of the original area of the static closure will be subject to 15-day closures following a sighting of one or more NARWs.
  • Waters shallower than 20 fathoms will not be subject to closure unless a NARW is spotted in waters that shallow. In such cases, 15-day closures will take place.
  • Re-introduction of the 10-knot speed limit of vessels 20 meters or longer travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence starting April 28th.
  • Removal of speed restriction zone in the southeast corner around Magdalen islands.
  • Continued allowing of vessels to travel at regular, safe operation speeds in areas north and south of Anticosti island.
    • Vessels will however be allowed to travel at regular, safe operation speeds in a larger area north of Anticosti Island then last year to reduce impacts on the marine shipping industry.
    • A 15-day mandatory slowdown to 10 knots will be activated in the appropriate shipping lanes if an NARW is sighted.

(Fisheries and Oceans, Government of Canada)

Changes to help support the fishing and marine shipping industry were made in response to consultation with industry and was based off scientific data on whale presence.

The Government of Canada will also be supporting industry trials of fishing gear that minimizes or eliminates the chance of entanglement of whales.

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