As right whale researchers shift their focus to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, they welcome a decision by the federal government to close a snow crab fishery early after seven whales and a whale rescuer died.

Sean Brillant, a senior conservation biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation based in Halifax, said he recently proposed a similar strategy to protect right whales that would restrict fishing during the summer in the Grand Manan Basin in the Bay of Fundy and the Roseway Basin on the Scotian Shelf.

Brillant said said fishermen's landings have reportedly declined in recent years, so the impact on them would be minimal.

But the move could significantly reduce the threat to the whales, who can die getting entangled in fishing gear or in collisions with boats, he said.

"It's very difficult to figure out how animals were killed, especially the ones that were in an advanced stage of decomposition," he said. "But they did identify in four cases that there is evidence that these animals were affected by human activity."

Closure of crab fishery

Last week, Fisheries and Oceans Canada closed part of the snow crab fishery two days early, one of the immediate steps taken to try to save North Atlantic right whales.

The announcement came in the wake of the death of Joe Howlett, a Campobello fisherman dedicated to rescuing whales from fishing gear.

Seven whales have been found dead since the beginning of June, and at least two others have been rescued from snow crab gear this month, including the whale saved by Howlett.

Sean Brillant, Canadian Wildlife Federation, Halifax

Biologist Sean Brillant says the number of recent right whale deaths is unprecedented and demonstrates the precarious situation of the endangered species. (Canadian Wildlife Federation)

Fisheries and Oceans also asked mariners to voluntarily slow down along the Laurentian channel in shipping lanes between the Magdalen Islands and the Gaspé Peninsula until Sept. 30, and to report any sightings of whales.

The department said it will review fisheries in the area of the gulf where right whales have been showing up in greater numbers and encountering danger.

Brillant said the whale deaths this summer are unprecedented and demonstrate the precarious situation of the species, which is endangered. He praised the government's reaction.

​"It's a very encouraging sign that they are actually willing to take this action," he said.

Howlett's death was devastating and highlighted the importance of solving "this conflict between the whales and the fishing community."

Fishermen stand to benefit

When he proposed closing fisheries in Grand Manan and Roseway Basin when whales are present, Brillant said, he wanted to come up with a solution "that would make a real difference for conservation and not be a blanket, large-scale attempt at solving the problem."

And it wouldn't just benefit the whales but also the fishermen, who suffer a loss of income, resources and fishing time, as well as a hit to their reputation, when whales get entangled in their gear, he said.

Right whale freed

This right whale, which was freed from entanglement, has wounds that rescue officials believe are from the fishing gear. (Canadian Whale Institute/Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life)

While work is underway in the U.S. to create more whale-friendly fishing gear, most of the designs so far have not accomplished much, he said. For now, the best option is to avoid fishing in an area when whales are present.

'We found that if we just displaced those fisheries temporarily from those spots, that we would achieve a really significant benefit for the conservation of these animals, and a significant benefit to the fishermen as well.' - Sean Brillant, senior conservation biologist 

"Since we only control where we fish, that's the best option for us," he said.

"We found that if we just displaced those fisheries temporarily from those spots, that we would achieve a really significant benefit for the conservation of these animals,

"And a significant benefit to the fishermen as well, where they won't be dealing with these types of entanglement."

Shifting focus on gulf region

Brillant said researchers are only learning about the activity of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in recent years.

For the past 30 years, their focus was on the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin. The whales arrive there in the summer, while spending the winter months in more southern waters, he said.

While he still hopes that the recent whale deaths are a one-off situation, he also stressed that another three or four died in 2016, making up to 11 whale deaths in the last couple of years, many with evidence of ship collisions and entanglements.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates the global population of the right whale is about 500. This means the dead whales account for about two per cent of the species, he said.

"It certainly demonstrates the importance of spending time and effort to try and find out where these whales are," he said.

"Because otherwise this type of tragedy goes unnoticed and we need to know these things in order to better manage our activities in the ocean."

With files from Shift New Brunswick, Gail Harding