Tensions flare at suggestion snow crab fishery close for whales

Fishermen erupted in anger Wednesday when federal officials proposed banning snow crab fishing in a large zone off the coast of New Brunswick for the entire time endangered whales are there.

Federal government explores additional measures to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales

Crab fishermen were angered by a suggestion that snow crab fishing be banned in a large zone off the coast of New Brunswick for the entire time endangered whales are there. (CBC)

Fishermen erupted in anger Wednesday when federal officials proposed banning snow crab fishing in a large zone off the coast of New Brunswick for the entire time endangered whales are there.

The proposal came at a meeting that industry and government officials hold every year to discuss the coming snow crab season in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.

You're going to ruin families, you're going to ruin communities for a few whales.- Snow crab fisherman

This year's season is of particular importance after a deadly 2017 for the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Gear used in snow crab fishing is believed to have played a role in some of the whale deaths, with necropsies on three whales revealing signs of entanglement in fishing rope.

The snow crab season normally begins around mid-April, but the federal fisheries minister has suggested it might start earlier this year. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

The meeting in Moncton was relatively uneventful until fisheries officials proposed a new measure to protect the whales: forbidding snow crab fishing in a zone off northern New Brunswick from about mid-May until what would be the normal end of the snow crab season.

The idea caused immediate outrage in the room.

'Dumbfounded' after proposal

"You're going to ruin families, you're going to ruin communities for a few whales," said one fisherman.

"Have you given any thought to the chaos you're going to create in fishing communities? This makes no sense. I can't see how this is sustainable," said another, adding he was "dumbfounded" such an idea was even being put on the table.

The proposal was called "silly," "ridiculous and "draconian."

Fishermen instead urged government officials to consider other options. The one the industry favours would see an earlier start to the fishing season, so quotas can be met before the whales actually migrate to the gulf.

"In the first week of the fishery, we can catch up to 20, 25 per cent of the quota," said Robert Haché, head of the Acadian snow crab fishermen association, who believes starting the season one week early might be feasible.

Coast guard might clear path

The snow crab fishing season normally starts around mid-April, but the Canadian Coast Guard was asked to assess the feasibility of bringing in icebreakers to clear the path for fishermen.

Trevor Hodgson, icebreaking superintendent from Newfoundland, says nature has to play a part in ensuring an early start to the snow crab fishing season. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

Trevor Hodgson, icebreaking superintendent from Newfoundland, told the meeting the Coast Guard is doing everything in its power to open the fishery early, but that there are many pieces to the puzzle. In the end, nature has to co-operate, he said.

"We will not compromise the safety of the fishermen to open the season earlier," said Hodgson, explaining possible risks such as boats getting stuck in ice, or fishermen losing gear if the season is opened before the conditions are acceptable.

Three other measures were suggested at the meeting:

  • What Fisheries and Oceans called a "dynamic closure," meaning if a cluster of three whales were spotted in the gulf, the surrounding area would be closed for 15 days.
  • Reducing the number of fishing traps allowed.
  • Closing the fishing season early, on June 30, to minimize the overlap with North Atlantic right whales
Necropsies on seven of the North Atlantic right whale carcasses found last year determined four whales died of blunt force trauma from collisions with ships, while the other three likely died from entanglements in fishing gear. (International Fund for Animal Welfare)
The four proposed changes — along with the reaction from fishermen — will be submitted to Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc, who will make the final call.

Earlier in the day, the meeting heard snow crab fishermen left a record 220 traps behind in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence last year. 

The figure came from Ron Belliveau, chief of enforcement operations for Fisheries and Oceans Canada's gulf region, which recovered the lost or abandoned traps.

DFO says crab fishermen left behind a record 220 crab traps after the 2017 crab fishery season ended. (CBC)
The snow crab industry also set a record for violations of federal regulations, Belliveau said.

In January, LeBlanc announced new whale-protection measures, including reducing the amount of fishing rope floating on the surface and mandatory reporting of all lost gear — rules he said would be enforced aggressively. 

Belliveau said there were 198 violations of federal regulations last year, almost double from the previous year.

'If I receive so much as a phone call one whale has become entangled in fishing gear, the fishery will be closed." - Marc LeCouffe, Fisheries and Oceans

The offences included use of illegal fishing gear, fishing without a valid licence, and trapping crab that was over the allowed size.

Charges were laid in 44 cases, and 52 more cases are still under review.

Ninety-eight cases ended with only a warning to the offender.

Ron Belliveau, chief of enforcement operations for Fisheries and Oceans Canada's gulf region, said the department recovered 220 lost or abandoned snow crab traps last year in the southern gulf. (CBC)
Belliveau said 2017 was the first year the department laid charges in court, and at the meeting it was made clear officials will have zero tolerance this year.

"If I receive so much as a phone call one whale has become entangled in fishing gear, the fishery will be closed," said Marc LeCouffe, resource director with the department.

There are only an estimated 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. At least 18 whales were found dead in the last year — 12 in Canadian waters and five in U.S. waters.

Scientists believe human activity, including shipping and fishing, was the primary cause.