The federal government will consider using the $400 million Atlantic Fisheries Fund and an innovation prize to develop new fishing gear or technology to help protect North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Those were among the "key action items" for a meeting federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc held with experts in Moncton on Thursday to find ways to minimize interactions between humans and the endangered mammals and prevent further deaths.

At least 12 North Atlantic right whales died in Canadian waters this past summer, plus another four in American waters.

LeBlanc said the government will introduce new policies before next summer based on his discussion with representatives from the fishing and marine transport industries, First Nations leaders from Eastern Canada, scientists and other officials from across the country.

"I intend to include in the updated regulations a requirement for a 100-metre buffer between vessels and most marine mammals, including obviously the North Atlantic right whale," he said.

Other options that could be considered, he said, include a reduction or modification of fishing gear, such as the rope used for crab traps, reducing the number of fishing boats on the water, and starting the fishing season earlier, before the whales move north from their winter feeding grounds.

"Time is not on our side," stressed LeBlanc. "This species is at a precipice. Urgent action is required now."

Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates there are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world.

Many of the recent deaths were due to blunt force trauma from strikes by vessels, or fishing gear entanglements.

North Atlantic right whale entanglements

The carcass of a small, female North Atlantic right whale found off Miscou Island, N.B. in October had to have a snow crab fishing trap cut from its body before a necropsy could be performed. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"All options must necessarily be on the table when it comes to protecting these creatures," LeBlanc said, adding he wanted to hear "in an open and frank way" from delegates "who may have differences of opinion."

The Atlantic Fisheries Fund (AFF) was launched in August to "focus on growing opportunities and increasing market value for sustainably sourced, high quality fish and seafood products from Atlantic Canada," according to the Fisheries and Oceans Canada website.

To be eligible, projects must focus on innovation, infrastructure or science partnerships, it states.

Speed reductions cause problems

Another possible solution discussed Thursday is creating separate corridors for ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which the industry prefers over speed reductions.

In August, the federal government implemented a 10-knot speed limit in the gulf in a bid to prevent further whale strikes.

Several ships have already been fined for exceeding that limit, some cargo companies hiked costs to make up for lost time in the slow zone and some ports saw their cruise stops cancelled.

LeBlanc said the government is "keenly aware" of industry concerns about the speed limit. "But we have a responsibility under law to take all of the appropriate measures to protect these endangered species."

One scientist at Thursday's meeting suggested a two-knot speed reduction for vessels can increase the chances of a whale being able to escape a potentially deadly strike by 30 per cent, said LeBlanc.

"Those are the kinds of things we want to hear about and those are the kinds of things that [Transport Canada Minister] Marc Garneau and myself are always open to doing," he told reporters.

The government is also exploring whether increased aerial surveillance could help limit or adjust speed restriction zones or identify alternate marine navigation routes by providing better real-time data on the location of the highest concentration of whales, he said.

Joe Howlett rescue

Joe Howlett uses a long pole with a knife attached to cut a whale free from fishing gear on a previous rescue. (Canadian Whale Institute/New England Aquarium)

Citizens 'deeply concerned'

LeBlanc rejected the notion some ship operators might choose to break a speed limit and pay a fine because it's cheaper than adhering to the speed limit.

"I don't share that pessimism." he said. "I don't think that's the way the fishing industry or the shipping industry operate, but those that do choose to disrespect the rules should and will face severe consequences."

They will also face the public, he said. "Canadians are deeply concerned about the protection of these endangered species. I hear about it every week."

'There is no magic bullet to solve the effects of human activities.' Moira Brown, New England Aquarium

"​I think public opinion will be unforgiving of somebody who said, 'You know what, I'm going to deliberately behave in a reckless, irresponsible way that could increase significantly the chance of harming or killing an endangered marine mammal.'"

Of the seven whales necropsied this past summer, four had signs of blunt force trauma consistent with ship strikes.

Two likely died from entanglements in fishing gear. The cause of death on the seventh right whale has been found to be inconclusive.

Some whales also had to be freed from snow crab gear during the summer, 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.

Need answers soon

Moira Brown, a right whale research scientist with the New England Aquarium and the Canadian Whale Institute, and a member of the Campobello Island whale rescue team, said there won't be any single solution.

"There is no magic bullet to solve the effects of human activities on North Atlantic right whales. And that's why it's so important to meet with the stakeholders for this specific area."

She said they only have about six months to come up with a plan because North Atlantic right whales could return to the gulf as early as May.

Moira Brown, right whale research scientist with the New England Aquarium& Canadian Whale Institute

Research scientist Moira Brown said North Atlantic right whales could return to the Gulf of St. Lawrence as early as May, so the government and its partners only have about six months to find solutions. (CBC)

Robert Haché, spokesman for the snow crab industry in New Brunswick, said the industry has come up with a number of ways to reduce the risk of entanglements, including the number of lines in the water.

"So it means that we have to have a very hard look at the number of traps we have in the water and reduce them, and when I'm talking about reduction, it's in the thousands, not in the hundreds," he said.

Still, Haché believes it should be relatively easy. He pointed to the current disproportion of traps allocated.

For instance, one group last year had 22 traps to fish 25,000 pounds, while another group had only 10 traps to fish the same amount.

René Trépanier, executive director of Cruise the St. Lawrence Association, said the most important thing for him is "to have a real picture of what will be done in terms of research, in terms of means of protection."

"The cruise industry wants to be involved, but we need to have answers soon about what's coming up in the short-term and also mid-term," he said.

Deep Trouble right whales

Sixteen North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in both Canadian and U.S. waters this past summer. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #14603)

The whale deaths this year have alarmed those trying to protect the endangered mammals.

A few weeks ago, hundreds of whale researchers met in Halifax to discuss the critically endangered marine mammals being found dead this year in waters off eastern Canada and the United States.

Another meeting is slated to be held in Nova Scotia later this month, said the federal fisheries minister.

"If we have to reconvene this group or other groups in the coming weeks, we're ready to do so as well," LeBlanc said.


CBC New Brunswick produced a six-episode podcast on the deadly summer for North Atlantic Right Whales. You can find it at cbc.ca/podcasts, or search for "Deep Trouble" on iTunes.

With files from Gabrielle Fahmy, Brett Ruskin and The Canadian Press