Fisheries minister stands firm on disputed closures after meeting lobster industry

Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc is standing firm on the new rules imposed on the lobster industry this week that were designed to protect endangered whales but left fishermen in shock and frustration.

Fishermen angry over new measures they say were just sprung on them and will affect their catches

Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Acadie-Bathurst MP Serge Cormier met with member of the Maritimes Fishermen Union. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc is standing firm on the new rules imposed on the lobster industry that were designed to protect endangered whales but left fishermen in shock and frustration.

This year's lobster-fishing plan for the Gulf of St. Lawrence region, introduced Tuesday, included many of the same protection measures announced in March for the snow crab industry, including controversial "no-fishing" zones.

"I explained to them the profound concern I have about changing measures — management measures — that we think are essential for the protection of the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale," LeBlanc said after a meeting with the Maritime Fishermen's Union. 

But lobster fishermen, who say they don't go in waters deep enough for whales, don't understand why they're being put in the same basket as the snow crab fishery.

In a meeting with union representatives, LeBlanc said he told them the U.S. had already delayed the opening of a lobster fishery for five days because about 90 right whales were off the coast of Massachusetts.

Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc, with Acadie-Bathurst MP Serge Cormier said his concern is losing the American market for lobster exports if measures aren't taken. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

"Those right whales, make no mistake about it, are heading north," he said. "If there were 90 identified by American surveillance, those right whales will be coming into Canadian waters in the days and coming weeks."

And while LeBlanc said no one knows where the whales will go, Canada has to be prepared with measures to protect the endangered species. 

Ahead of the meeting Friday, LeBlanc told CBC News that whales can't distinguish between crab gear and lobster gear, and he is comfortable with his decision.

Protect industry

He suggested the new rules were necessary to avoid a punitive response from the U.S. and to protect the lobster industry.

"Under American law, if a country does not take every reasonable and possible step to protect these highly endangered marine mammals, the American government can decide, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of the United States, that the remedy is to close the American border to imports of fish and seafood from that country, which would have a devastating effect."

New measures were announced by Fisheries and Oceans this week to protect the endangered right whale from potential entanglement in lobster fishing gear. (CBC)

LeBlanc said the lobster industry brings in three times more revenue than the crab industry and he can't put it at risk.

"Fishermen have to be careful not to end up vandalizing their own industry," he said.

After the meeting, LeBlanc said some U.S. politicians are pushing for close scrutiny of Canadian fishery exports because of the deaths of whales. Canadian lobster has to be certified that it was caught in a way that won't harm future stocks or other species.

"Losing certification has a very serious economic consequence," LeBlanc said.

Fisheries and Oceans is closing a large zone off the coast of northeast New Brunswick to lobster fishing for the entire season. (CBC)

"I can't think of a better example of environmental stewardship and the protection of an iconic endangered species will have huge economic consequences if we don't get it right."

LeBlanc said it's a risk he won't take.

"I would be entirely irresponsible to wait for an official notice that says, 'Guess what, we're about to bar access to the United States market.'

"I need to be as prudent as I can possibly be to ensure we don't get that official notice. What I'm saying is that there is a building pressure in the United States and globally to look at the sustainability of Canadian fisheries in light of the death of North Atlantic right whales last year."

Martin Mallet, the executive director of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, said the group agreed with LeBlanc that the U.S. market has to be protected through compliance.

"We are hoping for some flexibility," he said.

"We are happy to have what we asked for in terms of a small committee to work on finding better solutions to the crisis, but like I mentioned earlier, we'll have to wait until next week to see if some of these measures that we've proposed will be taken into consideration."

Emergency meeting called

The emergency meeting with the minister was requested by the Maritime Fishermen's Union earlier this week.

At least 300 lobster fishermen gathered at the Inkerman community centre Wednesday — an unprecedented turnout, according to officials.

The restrictions include closing a large zone off the northeast coast of New Brunswick for the entire season to avoid fishing gear entanglements.

That's where 90 per cent of the endangered whales were observed last summer.

Lobster fishermen at the wharf in Inkerman Wednesday said it's still too icy to put their boats in the water. (Pierre-Alexandre Bolduc/Radio-Canada)

Fisheries and Oceans will also implement "dynamic closures" for a minimum of 15 days in areas where a right whale is spotted. The restriction will only be lifted after two consecutive aerial surveillance missions confirm the whales have moved on.

At least 18 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead since last year — 12 in Canadian waters and six off the coast of the U.S.

Necropsies on seven of the carcasses determined four whales died of blunt force trauma from collisions with ships, and the other three likely died from entanglements in fishing gear.

Necropsies on some of the whales last year showed entanglement in fishing gear. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

About the Author

Gabrielle Fahmy

Reporter

Gabrielle Fahmy is a reporter based in Moncton. She's been a journalist with the CBC since 2014.