New Brunswick·DEEP TROUBLE

101 lost snow crab traps, 9 km of rope removed from gulf to protect right whales

Federal fishery officers and Canadian Coast Guard crews have removed 101 lost snow crab traps and more than nine kilometres of associated rope from the Gulf of St. Lawrence as part of ongoing efforts to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Removal of 'ghost gear' aimed at preventing North Atlantic right whale entanglements

Crews spent three days searching for and retrieving lost fishing gear from the Gulf of St. Lawrence as part of Operation Ghost. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Federal fishery officers and Canadian Coast Guard crews have removed 101 lost snow crab traps and more than nine kilometres of associated rope from the Gulf of St. Lawrence as part of ongoing efforts to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The so-called ghost gear was recovered during a three-day operation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced Wednesday.

Eight North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters so far this year, including two in the Gulf in recent weeks. There are only about 400 of the species left in the world.

"Along with preventing entanglements, removing ghost gear from our waters contributes to the conservation of our fisheries, as the gear traps marine species that would otherwise form part of a fishery's regular catch," DFO said in a news release.

Operation Ghost involved seven Coast Guard vessels and focused on areas of the gulf where the most gear had been reported lost or missing.

Any retrieved fishing gear that wasn't reported lost could lead to charges, officials said.

Since 2018, fish harvesters in the southern part of the gulf have been required to report lost gear.

There have been more than 1,000 reports of lost fishing gear already this year.

All legal gear that was reported lost will be returned to the owners.

Ropeless gear holds hope

Earlier this week, during a stop in Dieppe to discuss whale protection efforts, Jonathan Wilkinson, the minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, told reporters there are a number of ropeless fishing gear trials underway.

"I think the technology is not very far away, but there is obviously both a cost issue, that we need to make sure that it's going to be affordable for fish harvesters, and there's also a technology adoption issue. We're going to make it easy for fish harvesters to be able to adopt new forms of technology," he said.

"But certainly from a fisheries perspective we see that as a very, very interesting way to address and separate the issues of fishing versus the whales."

Wilkinson met with representatives of the federal government, non-government organizations and universities in Dieppe on Monday to discuss their ongoing work to protect North Atlantic right whales.

A male North Atlantic right whale found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on July 18 was the seventh right whale to die in Canadian waters this year. (Isabelle Damphousse/Radio-Canada)

The three-day search and retrieval mission was the first concentrated effort by federal officials to recover ghost gear.

DFO is also working to expand the current mandatory reporting requirements for lost gear to additional fisheries.

Last week, rescuers managed to partially disentangle two five-year-old male whales found in the gulf. Crews removed some of the fishing gear on No.4423 and cut the rope from the mouth and tail of No. 4440 on July 17.

A dead male right whale was spotted drifting in the gulf, west of the Magdalen Islands, on July 18 during an aerial surveillance flight.

Preliminary results of a necropsy performed July 20 in Grand-Étang, Que., were inconclusive on the cause of death.

The other whale found dead in the gulf was originally sighted by a fish harvester June 24 off Glace Bay, N.S., but was only identified as a right whale on July 19.

A necropsy has not been performed in that case because its carcass has not been located.

Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear have been identified or suspected in the deaths of other North Atlantic right whales in recent years.

Operation Ghost was the first concentrated effort by fisheries officers and the Canadian Coast Guard to recover ghost gear. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Earlier this month, Transport Canada announced additional measures to protect the endangered whales from fatal ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.

The measures include further reducing ship speeds in the area, increasing zones in which the speed restrictions will apply, increasing aerial surveillance and funding for an improved marine mammal response.

Wilkinson has indicated 17 vessels have exceeded the speed limit imposed on ships in the gulf so far this year. Most of those were going barely above the limit, likely because of waves. 

Transport Canada announced last week it had fined a vessel named Big Eagle $6,000 for allegedly violating a speed limit imposed to protect whales. 

With files from Shane Magee

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