Montreal

Quebec agriculture minister concerned as American officials push for ban on Canadian seafood imports

The four elected officials in Maine want to see a ban on Canadian seafood imports, because they blame Canadian fisheries, specifically snow crab gear, for 14 right whale deaths.

Minister calls on federal government to 'do everything' to prevent ban from happening

According to Quebec agriculture ministry, about 75 per cent of the province's fish and seafood is exported to the United States (Submitted by FFAW)

Some American senators and members of Congress claim Canadian shipping and fishing activities are harming endangered North American right whales, and they're calling on the White House to place an embargo on Canadian seafood.

In a December letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, four elected officials in Maine blamed Canadian fisheries, specifically snow crab gear, for 14 right whale deaths, eight of which were in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, along with members of Congress Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, asked the U.S. government to stop importing fish products "caught with technology that kills or injures ocean mammals."

"The number of serious injuries and mortalities directly tied to Canadian shipping and fisheries activities, however, continues to mount.," they wrote.

In an email to CBC News, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food spokesperson Laurence Voyzelle said fisheries are a vital industry to several regions of Quebec. She said about 75 per cent of Quebec's fish and seafood is exported to the United States.

Voyzelle said Quebec Agriculture Minister André Lamontagne is very concerned by the embargo request.

"Minister Lamontagne considers such a possibility to be unacceptable and is calling on the federal government to do everything to avoid [an embargo]," she wrote.

Voyzelle said marine mammal mortalities — specifically North Atlantic right whale deaths — are a major concern for the provincial government.

There are about 400 animals left, and less than 100 adult females.  

'It would be terrible'

Lyne Morissette — a marine biologist based in Rimouski who specializes in sea mammals and fisheries interactions — called the letter a blatant political move ahead of this year's U.S. elections. 

"This is basically a political game to gain attention on the East Coast of the U.S. trying to benefit the lobster fishermen in Maine," she said.

Morissette said the letter attempts to blame Canadian fisheries for whale deaths, when scientists and fishermen on both sides of the border work closely together to improve protection efforts.

She said the letter spreads misinformation about Canada's work to protect right whales, which she called a relatively new challenge because the Gulf of St. Lawrence is new territory for the mammals.

"It's just highlighting false information and not highlighting everything we're doing [to protect whales]," she said.

Despite the letter, Morisette is hopeful for the future of North Atlantic right whales, because she sees scientists working with the industry to find solutions.

"It would be terrible because most snow crab exports go to the U.S., so it would be really bad for the fisheries and the economy of Eastern Canada," Morissette said. "But again, it's more of a political game right now."

"Time spent finding a culprit and blaming one another is time that we could spend on working together to figure out solutions," she said.

A representative for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote in an email to the CBC that the agency is reviewing the letter.

With reporting by Josh Grant

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