Lobster fishermen create wall of empty traps at protest against closures

Nearly 500 fishermen brought empty lobster traps to Caraquet on Thursday to protest against the closure of fishing areas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence while endangered whales swim there.

Fishermen rally in Caraquet against latest closure of fishing area to protect endangered whales

About 500 fishermen descended on Caraquet on Thursday to protest against the latest closure of a fishing area in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

Nearly 500 fishermen brought empty lobster traps to Caraquet on Thursday to protest against the closure of fishing areas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence while endangered whales swim there.

The protest came after another round of fishing area closures was announced by Ottawa this week because five North American right whales were spotted between Miscou and the Gaspé Peninsula.

'Why does it have to be one or the other? Why does it have to be just the whales or just the fishermen?'  - Carl Allen, Maritime Fishermen's Union

It's the sixth closure to be announced since the beginning of lobster season,  and it includes a shallow coastal area where fishermen are seeking permission to drop their traps.

The closure, originally set for late Friday afternoon, will now begin Sunday at noon because of strong winds and concerns about safety, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said.  

The fishing closures are among the steps taken by the department to try to save North Atlantic right whales. 

Last year, 18 endangered whales were found dead — 12 off the Canadian coast and six off the U.S.  

Entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships were blamed in some cases.

"We've never entangled one in lobster gear in these areas, ever," said Carl Allen, president of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, who organized the protest.

"All the ones that were entangled in gear, it was snow crab gear out in deeper water, so why are we being targeted? Why are we closing areas right to the shore bank?"

A map shows where the fishing area closures are located. (CBC )

The closures have also applied to snow crab and other fisheries in the gulf.

Allen complained the federal government has not even talked to fishermen to come up with management plans or a protocol that would help the fishery and whales co-exist.   

"I think the whole thing is a reactionary measure to the mess that was created last summer and there's no balance," he said.

"Why does it have to be one or the other? Why does it have to be just the whales or just the fishermen?"  

Carl Allen, president of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, says lobster fishermen can co-exist with endangered whales, but they are being ignored by the Department of Fisheries. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

Allen said the closures not only hurt fishermen and processing plant workers but also local economies on the Acadian Peninsula.

"The boys are just here for a rally to support their community and to let the world know this is having an effect on the community at large," he said.

In accusing the Department of Fisheries of ignoring their proposals for "co-habitation" with whales, the fishermen said whales don't get close to the coast anyway.

But the federal department disagrees, claiming North Atlantic right whales, especially females and their young, can frequent those waters.  

Booing the government

Acadie-Bathurst MP Serge Cormier was in Ottawa during the protest. Fishermen greeted the news with boos. (Gabriell Fahmy/CBC)

On Thursday, many fishermen created a wall of empty lobster traps in front of the entrance to the building where Serge Cormier, the Liberal MP for Acadie-Bathurst, has an office.

Demonstrators booed Cormier's secretary, when she told them the MP was in Ottawa. 

Earlier this week, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc acknowledged people are being affected by the zone closures and said the department will try to lengthen the lobster fishing season in the fall.  

"I have said over and over again, we will try and replace the number of days of lobster fishing that they will lose because of these closures possibly in the fall," he said.

"We think in September it might be possible to reopen the fishery."

With only about 450 left in the world, North Atlantic right whales are a protected species. 

The Fisheries Department has said the closed fishing grounds in the gulf total just under 13,000 square kilometres, including the area that will close Sunday.

Leaving traps at home

The most recent lobster closure will take place on Sunday at 12 p.m. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

According to some fishermen, the latest closure is the worst one yet.

Russell Vibert of Miscou Island said he will be forced to take out all 300 of his lobster traps from the water.

"There's a small little area we can move in, but it's going to be impossible for all the fishermen to fit into that area," he said.

The 50 or so fishermen from Miscou Island have about 12,000 traps, he said, and the smaller area won't accommodate everyone. 

He's decided to bring his traps home.

"If we all try to fit into the area, we're going to lose our traps because they're going to get cut, they're going to get broken."  

Losing 2 weeks of fishing

Vibert said losing two weeks of the season will impact 25 per cent of his haul. Ottawa doesn't realize the effect of the closures on the fishermen's livelihood, he said.

"It's a hard pill to swallow," said the longtime lobster boat captain.

"We're a little island in northeastern New Brunswick and it's our only livelihood and it's all we have."

Russell Vibert, a lobster fisherman from Miscou Island, says he will be forced to remove all of his lobster traps from the water this week. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

James Stewart, another fisherman on Miscou, said he'll wait until the last possible moment before he removes his traps.

"It's a really small piece of the pie," he said of the area left. "We'll catch all the lobsters in no time."

Meanwhile, the Lobster Council of Canada has said it wants buyers, especially in the U.S., to be aware the industry is doing everything it can to help protect the right whales — even while it costs them money.

"The place where the whales are is new, but Canadian harvesters dealing with whales is not new," said Geoff Irvine, executive director of the council.

"And that story needs to be told. And there's been some pressure from the American body politic and all of that puts pressure on us."

Over the past 12 years, he said. the Atlantic lobster industry has worked closely with government to reduce risks to whales.

Fishermen have been on the lookout for the animals, reported gear losses and imposed self-suspensions on fishing. 

He said the amount of rope being used has been reduced and new gear is also being tested. 

"The U.S. is our biggest market. And we want to make sure that the story gets out there that we're doing positive things up here." 

eoff Irvine is the executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada. 11:24

With files from Gabrielle Fahmy, Information Morning Moncton