Fishermen's union requests emergency meeting with minister over new lobster rules

The Maritime Fishermen's Union has requested an emergency meeting with Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc before the lobster season starts next week to discuss new measures aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Maritime Fishermen's Union worried about measures designed to protect North Atlantic right whales in gulf

Carl Allen, president of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, hopes to meet with the minister before the lobster season begins on Monday. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

The Maritime Fishermen's Union has requested an emergency meeting with Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc before the lobster season starts next week to discuss new measures aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The union says the restrictions announced Tuesday, which include closing a large zone off the northeast coast of New Brunswick for the entire season to avoid fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes, could create an economic crisis.

About 200 lobster fishermen will be directly impacted, MFU president Carl Allen said at a news conference in Shippagan on Wednesday afternoon.

But the number will jump if those fishermen go elsewhere to fish, he said, and people who work in processing plants could also be affected.

"Obviously the membership is very frustrated" with the last-minute changes and worried about making ends meet, he said. 

"Is this going to lead to, you know, people can't pay their bills, people can't feed their families? Is this going to lead to more people leaving the Acadian Peninsula?"

Although similar restrictions were announced for snow crab fishermen last month, the lobster fishermen feel the industry is being unfairly targeted, said Allen.

None of the necropsies performed on dead whales found last year showed evidence of lobster gear; only snow crab gear, he pointed out.

The union hopes to find some "middle ground" with the minister and set up a working group with the federal department.

Fishermen gathered for a private meeting in Inkerman on Wednesday morning before a Maritime Fishermen's Union's news conference at 1:30 p.m. in Shippagan. (Pierre-Alexandre Bolduc/Radio-Canada)

LeBlanc walked past reporters in Ottawa Wednesday afternoon when asked about the issue.

But on Wednesday evening, in an email to CBC News, department spokeswoman Carole Saindon said the minister has offered to meet with MFU officials and other stakeholders to discuss the management measures and "the importance of continuing to work together to protect the North Atlantic right whale."

She did not indicate whether the meeting will be held before the season begins Monday, as requested.

The department will also continue to work with the industry to develop appropriate systems for lobster rope and buoys for future years, said Saindon.

This female North Atlantic right whale found in the Gulf of St Lawrence on Sept. 15 was deemed a case of "severe entanglement." (Shane Fowler/CBC)

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.

There are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world.

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.

Starting April 28, lobster boats won't be able to travel in a "static closure" area off the northeast coast of New Brunswick, close to Miscou and Pidgeon Hill.

The department says that's where 90 per cent of the endangered whales were observed last summer.

The yellow zone represents the one that will be barred all season to lobster fishermen. (DFO)

The union doesn't dispute that but contends the northwest corner of that area, which is where lobster fishermen go, should not fall under the static closure. It is shallower — too shallow for whales to forage, said Allen.

The closure will remain in effect until June 30, the end of the season.

Lobster fisherman Pierre Larocque, of Pidgeon Hill, said it will hit him hard.

"I take about 25 per cent, 30 per cent of my yearly catch over there and now it's closed."

"We never see whales over there."

Lobster fisherman Daniel Arsenault said he's very concerned about the planned closures this season. (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.

Rope attaching a lobster trap to a primary buoy can no longer remain floating on the water's surface and all lost fishing gear must now be reported.

Lobster fishermen will also be required to report any interactions with marine mammals, including collisions and entanglements, and to report any live whale sightings.

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

At least 300 lobster fishermen gathered at the Inkerman community centre on Wednesday morning, before the union's news conference.

The turnout was unprecedented, according to union officials.

Daniel Arsenault, who was among those who went, said he's very concerned about the planned and potential closures.

"It doesn't make sense," he said in French before going into the meeting.

Martin Mallet, executive director of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, said Tuesday that lobster fishermen tried to suggest other solutions, such as limiting the number of traps, but fisheries officials didn't listen.

Although the season is scheduled to begin on Monday, fishermen at the wharf in Inkerman said it could be delayed because of ice.

The buoys are not installed yet either, they added.

With files from Gabrielle Fahmy and Pierre-Alexandre Bolduc

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