New Brunswick·Deep Trouble

Longer snow crab season part of 'perfect storm' causing whale deaths

The fishing industry says it’s looking for a solution to help prevent North Atlantic right whales from enduring painful, and sometimes deadly, entanglements with fishing gear.

Fishing industry group says it's looking for ways to prevent Atlantic right whale entanglements

A snow crab trap had to be cut from the severely entangled carcass of a small, female North Atlantic right whale before a necropsy could be performed on Miscou Island, N.B. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

The fishing industry says it's looking for a solution to help prevent North Atlantic right whales from enduring painful, and sometimes deadly, entanglements with fishing gear.

The Maritime Fishermen's Union says a longer snow crab fishing season and an unprecedented number of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence created a "perfect storm" this year for a massive die-off.

Twelve right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters, and another three have washed up on the east coast of the United States.

One of the right whales found dead off Canadian shores has been confirmed dead as a result of being entangled in fishing gear.

Entanglement is also the suspected cause of death of a two-year-old right whale found in September, covered in deep cuts from heavy ropes.

"This is not something that we had hoped for," said Martin Mallet, interim executive director with the Maritime Fishermen's Union.

"This is a bad, bad thing for the whales, and for the industry."

At least five other whales have been spotted entangled in fishing gear but haven't died from those injuries.

A rusted snow crab trap crafted from rebar sits on a Miscou Island beach after it was cut from a dead North Atlantic right whale. (Submitted: Liam Shea)
Some entangled whales will carry gear for months, suffering before they slowly succumb to their injuries.

"Our association is being proactive with this issue and there are some consultations that will be going forward with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as soon as early November," Mallet said.

'Mixed feelings' about speed limit

Ship strikes were the most common cause of death for endangered right whales during the deadly summer.

Scientists who performed necropsies found the animals with internal blunt force trauma.

The federal government has vowed to do whatever it takes to save the endangered species.

Because of larger quotas this year, the snow crab season was longer than usual, although Fisheries and Oceans closed the season a few days early in places as risks to whales in the gulf grew.

The government has also forced large vessels to slow down in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Industry players say they have "mixed feelings" about the new 10-knot speed limit in a large zone of the gulf. 

DEEP TROUBLE | Right whale in peril

"I've heard concerns for sure," said Serge Buy, CEO of the Canadian Ferry Association.

A ferry delivering goods to Newfoundland and Labrador has started charging customers a new surcharge to recoup costs associated with slowing down, Buy said.

"But I've also heard a clear statement that our sector stands by measures that are there to protect the whales, as long the measures are well-founded in science."

Extra costs and longer trips

A North Atlantic right whale off Cape Cod, Mass. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA)
For the shipping industry, the slowdown zone means vessels could find themselves burning more fuel and paying extra labour costs.

A large container ship carrying manufacturer goods typically travels at 18 knots, according to Sonia Simard, the director of legislative and environmental affairs for the Shipping Federation of Canada.

Slowing down to 10 knots could add an extra five to eight hours to a one-way trip, Simard said. Her organization represents international vessels that ship goods in and out of Canada for industries such as mining and forestry. 

Despite the added costs, Simard said the shipping industry plans to follow the rules.

"It costs money but at the same time, we certainly as an industry understand the need to ensure that vessels and whales, they can safely co-exist."

Simard said the shipping industry will work with the federal government to find a solution for the future and is open to moving the shipping corridor.

Ships that break the speed limit could face fines of up to $25,000.

Transport Canada has already penalized vessels for going too fast. The Canadian Coast Guard and a cruise ship were both fined $6,000 in September.

The speed limit is expected to be in place until right whales migrate for the winter, something that could happen as late as December.