The federal government will bring "absolutely every protection to bear" to prevent deaths of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc pledged on Thursday.
His department is working closely with Transport Canada to address the "serious and troubling situation" and will provide whatever resources are necessary to protect the endangered species as well as the people who work near the "iconic animals," he said during a news conference in Moncton.
The government is prepared to "take all necessary steps," he said, noting the 10 recent confirmed deaths pose a threat to Canada's global reputation.
"Every option to protect right whales is on the table," the minister said, citing changes to shipping lanes, increased aerial surveillance, remote-controlled acoustic equipment or changes to fishing gear as being among the possibilities.
LeBlanc said he plans to convene a symposium with representatives of the marine and fishing industries to discuss and finalize the options. "We have a lot more work to do."
Ten right whales have died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since June 7 — four of them washing up on the west coast of Newfoundland in the past week alone.
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Preliminary necropsy reports suggest ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement are possible causes.
At least two other whales had to be freed from snow crab gear in recent weeks, including one saved by Joe Howlett, a 59-year-old fisherman from Campobello Island, N.B., who was killed during the rescue near Shippagan on July 10.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates there are only about 500 right whales left in the world, which means the deaths represent about two per cent of the global population. At least two of the dead whales were females.
Marine mammal experts have called on the federal government to take immediate steps to prevent further deaths.
LeBlanc said Thursday it's a challenging problem, given the volume of shipping and marine traffic in the area. The Gulf of St. Lawrence connects central and Eastern Canada to international shipping markets.
But Canada has "an enormous responsibility" under the Endangered Species Act to find solutions, he said.
"If a country doesn't [address] its responsibilities, then one of the potential remedies is a restriction into the U.S. market, so Canada is and will take every possible measure to ensure we're doing what the world expects of us and what Canadians expect of us to protect this species."
Canadians have been "deeply captured" by the images of the dead whales and the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Howlett, said LeBlanc.
"Anybody who thinks it's not extremely serious is very mistaken."
Some of the best scientists in the world are working on the issue, said LeBlanc, 15 or 20 of them "almost full-time." He expects a final report by mid-September, he said.
Earlier in the day, LeBlanc flew in a helicopter with some of the scientists over an area of the Gulf about 30 kilometres east of Miscou Island, and saw approximately 15 to 25 right whales, he said, calling it "an absolutely majestic sight and a privilege."
They also saw drifting buoys and crab cages, which will be removed, he said.
Unprecedented numbers in the Gulf
LeBlanc estimated there are between 80 and 100 right whales currently in the Gulf, which is two or three times higher than ever before.
Scientists have suggested climate change may have reduced their food supplies in other areas, forcing them to seek out new sources.
The whales are expected to leave the area around Thanksgiving, said LeBlanc. It's too early to speculate whether the same numbers will continue to return, he said.
The Fisheries Department responded to the deaths of the whales and Howlett last month by shutting down two days early part of the snow crab fishery, which overlapped the area where the whales were found.
Other steps included asking mariners to voluntarily slow down along the Laurentian Channel in shipping lanes between the Magdalen Islands and the Gaspé Peninsula until Sept. 30, and asking all commercial fishermen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to watch for whales and report any sightings.
Three of the eight right whales found floating between the Magdalen Islands and New Brunswick's Acadian Peninsula this summer suffered blunt trauma, indicating vessel strikes.
Another right whale was found entangled in snow crab gear.