Earlier snow crab season, ship speed limits announced to protect North Atlantic right whales

New measures designed to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, including an earlier start and end to the snow crab fishing season in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, have been announced by the ministers involved.

At least 18 of the endangered whales have been found dead since last year

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Transport Canada Minister Marc Garneau said the federal government has heard the concerns raised about the impact of speed restrictions for vessels and fisheries management measures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but that protecting the endangered whales is 'a shared responsibility that weighs heavily on all of us.' (CBC)

New measures to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, including an earlier start and end to the snow crab fishing season in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, fixed and temporary closures where whales are spotted, and an earlier speed restriction for ships in the western gulf have been announced.

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Transport Canada Minister Marc Garneau indicated the measures are intended to reduce the risk of whales becoming entangled in fishing gear or being struck by ships.

The federal government will also "dramatically" increase aerial and at-sea surveillance in a bid to detect the whales, LeBlanc said during a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday morning.

"We are very confident that these measures will have a very significant impact in protecting right whales and in ensuring their recovery."

The fisheries minister has also lifted the temporary suspension on whale disentanglement rescue efforts, which was put in place following the death last summer of Joe Howlett, of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team.

LeBlanc said after careful review, he is confident the appropriate protocols are now in place to ensure the safety of staff and volunteers who participate in the program that "has quite frankly inspired Canadians."

In addition, Ottawa has committed $1 million annually to support the marine mammal response program — a "significant increase" over previous years — so staff and volunteers are able to respond safely, he said.

We don't think it's too late.- Dominic LeBlanc , fisheries minister

Tonya Wimmer, director of the Marine Animal Response Society, welcomed the new measures.

"If we continued to really not do much at all, there are good odds those animals would disappear from this planet," she said.

There are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and of those, only about 100 are reproducing females.

"So I think the announcements today were very much a reflection of the concern of everyone that if we really do want to keep these animals around — and I think most people would want to, including members of industry and [non-governmental organizations] and scientist community members, whoever — we really do have to raise the bar in terms of putting in place measures to protect them."

Wimmer expects the changes will help protect many other species as well.

This female North Atlantic right whale found in the Gulf of St Lawrence on Sept. 15 was deemed by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans as a case of 'severe entanglement.' (Shane Fowler/CBC)

At least 18 North Atlantic right whaleshave been found dead since last year — 12 in Canadian waters and six in U.S waters. That's about four per cent of the dwindling population. Scientists believe human activity, including shipping and fishing, was the primary cause.

The latest was discovered off the coast of Virginia in January. The whale carcass appeared to be entangled in fishing gear, based on a photograph received by the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program.

Although no new calves have been spotted yet this year in the calving grounds off Florida, LeBlanc dismissed any suggestion that the government's measures are too late.

"I'm never pessimistic about these things," he said.

However, he said the lack of calves has reminded the government of the "urgency to act quickly."

"We don't think it's too late. We think if we don't act in a very robust way, we'll set on course a very tragic outcome, and that's why we're here today announcing these measures."

Icebreakers to assist early start

The government has added a requirement to all commercial licences that any interactions with marine mammals must be reported. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

LeBlanc said all snow crab fishing fleets in the Gulf of St. Lawrence fishing region known as area 12 will begin simultaneously "as soon as it is safe to do so."

The season normally begins around mid-April, but a Canadian Coast Guard ice breaker is expected to be in northern New Brunswick later this week or early next week to open some of the fishing harbours, he said.

A Hovercraft will also be available within the next 10 days.

"We're doing everything we can to open the season as soon as possible," said LeBlanc.

Starting on April 28, a portion of the fishing area where the whales were first spotted last year and where scientists predict they'll be looking for food again this year, will be closed for the remainder of the season, he said.

Idea once considered crazy could eliminate the entanglements that threaten North Atlantic right whales 1:08

Temporary closures will be implemented in areas where right whales are observed and will only be lifted once two surveillance flights show they are no longer in the area.

There will be fewer traps in the water this year and all traps will have to be removed from the water by June 30 — about two weeks earlier than usual, the minister said.

LeBlanc said he does not expect the changes will cause a "serious economic disruption" on the fishery, adding many of the new measures were suggested by the industry.

The Acadian Crabbers' Association could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mandatory slow-downs

A 10-knot speed limit will be imposed on vessels 20 metres or longer in the parts of the Gulf of St. Lawrence illustrated in pink between April 28 and Nov. 15. (Transport Canada)

Vessels measuring 20 metres or more in length will have to restrict their speed to a maximum of 10 knots when travelling in the western part of the gulf again this year, but it will take effect on April 28, instead of Aug. 11, said Garneau.

The mandatory speed limit is scheduled to remain in place until Nov. 15 instead of Jan. 11, depending in the migration of the whales and the zone may be changed, based on surveillance data, he said.

Vessels will be allowed to travel at normal speeds in two shipping lanes located north and south of Anticosti Island when no whales are present, but if a North Atlantic right whale is spotted within two and a half nautical miles (about 4.6 kilometres) of one of the sections of those lanes, a mandatory 15-day slowdown to 10 knots will be implemented within the adjacent section, said Garneau.

If a whale is spotted between Nov. 16 and Dec. 31, the government is asking vessel operators to voluntarily comply with a 10-knot limit, provided it is safe for them to do so.

14 fines issued last year

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc described the number of North Atlantic right whale deaths last year as 'a staggering loss' to the already endangered species. (Facebook/Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Fines for violating the speed limits will be the same as last year — between $6,000 for a first offence, up to $25,000.

LeBlanc has previously suggested the fine structure might be an insufficient deterrent and that the sanctions should reflect the seriousness of the offence.

A total of 542 ship transits were reported for allegedly violating the speed limit last year, including They involved cruise ships, cargo ships, an oil tanker and even a coast guard vessel.

Of those, 14 vessel operators were each fined the minimum $6,000, Transport Canada spokeswoman Annie Joannette said on Wednesday.

"A large majority of vessels complied with the speed restriction," she said.

Slower speeds are meant to help reduce the risk of whale strikes, and also improve the chances of survival for any whales struck.

'Dynamic' management

The Shipping Federation of Canada applauds the government's new "dual approach," which is similar to the model used with success in the United States for years, said Sonia Simard, director of legislative and environmental affairs.

In the U.S., there are static seasonal speed restriction zones in areas where whales are known to aggregate and "dynamic" activation of speed limits outside those zones when whales are spotted.

Unlike the U.S., where the speed limit in the dynamic management areas are voluntary, they will be mandatory in the gulf.

It's a plan that "delivers on both protection for the whales and minimizing the impact on the industry," said Simard.

The dynamic approach "creates a little bit more uncertainty" for the industry, she acknowledged.

But the static speed restriction adds an estimated five to eight hours of transit time. "And in this industry, time is of the essence."

All of the new whale-protecting measures were developed following extensive consultation with "partners, experts, stakeholders and Indigenous groups," the ministers said.

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Transport Canada's Marc Garneau have announced plans for protection of the endangered North Atlantic right whale. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

Earlier this year, LeBlanc announced new measures for the operation of the snow crab fishery in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence to protect the North Atlantic right whale from entanglement.

The changes include reducing the amount of fishing rope floating on the surface and mandatory reporting of all lost gear.

This spring, New Brunswick snow crab fishermen will test two ropeless trap methods to reduce the use of the fishing rope blamed in the deaths of two North Atlantic right whales last year.

The two whales were among seven found tangled up in ropes and buoys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during an especially dangerous year for the whales.

In the United States, conservation and animal protection groups have sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, alleging it failed to protect right whales from entanglement in commercial fishing gear.

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