Scientist, fishermen applaud loosening of whale-protection restrictions

The federal government is relaxing restrictions aimed at protecting North Atlantic right whales based on data from last year, when no whales were found dead in Canadian waters.

Smaller zone will be closed to fishing this year to protect North Atlantic right whales

Twelve North Atlantic right whales died in Canadian waters in 2017. None died in 2018, the year new federal regulations were put in place. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #19315/AP)

The federal government is easing restrictions aimed at protecting North Atlantic right whales based on data from last year, when no whales were found dead in Canadian waters.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Transport Minister Marc Garneau were in Shippagan on Thursday to announce the changes, which include reducing the area that is out of bounds to fishermen.  

The government has cut down what it calls a static-closure zone to a third of what it was in 2018, and the area will stretch more north-to-south direction.

Lobster and crab fishing will not be allowed in the static-closure zone, where 90 per cent of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were sighted last year.

The government has also loosened restrictions on fishing in shallower waters when whales are in the gulf.

Last year, Fisheries also implemented dynamic closures when a whale was spotted. The area around it would be closed for 15 days, or longer if the whale was still there.

The new season-long no-fishing zone has been reduced by a third, and elongated more north-to-south. (Government of Canada)

This year, the dynamic closures will not automatically apply to shallower waters of under 20 fathoms.

Lobster fishermen have argued dynamic closures should not include the shallower waters where they fish and have never seen whales. Some protested the closures in Caraquet last summer.

This revised rule will not apply if a whale is spotted in a shallow area.

Shipping changes

As for the shipping industry, the government is reintroducing a mandatory speed restriction for vessels 20 metres or longer to a maximum of 10 knots when travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence starting April 28.

Réjean Comeau, president of Local 1 of the Maritimes Fishermen's Union, said the union is happy with the changes to right whale conservation restrictions. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

As part of the changes, the southeast corner of the speed-restriction zone around the Magdalen Islands has been removed.

Ships will be allowed to travel at regular speeds in two shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island when no whales are in the area. But as with fishing, a 15-day mandatory slowdown to 10 knots will be implemented when a right whale is spotted and will be extended for as long as the whale remains in the lanes.

A good step

Moira Brown, senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute and Campobello Whale Rescue Team, said these changes are a positive step, since they shows a "co-existence" between conservation efforts and industry.

"I think these are good," she said.

She said the Gulf of St. Lawrence would historically only see a couple of whales every year, but in 2017 an unexpected number travelled north.  

Moira Brown, senior scientists with the Canadian Whale Institute and Campobello Whale Rescue Team, said the changed restriction strike a balance between conservation and local industry. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

In one year, 18 North Atlantic right whales were confirmed dead after some got tangled in fishing gear and others were struck by ships. Twelve of the whales were found in Canadian waters.

Brown said the whale deaths called for strict rules until researchers and industry could understand what was causing the migration and exactly where the whales were swimming.

After all the research, the changes will mean "big differences to industry, but no difference to right whale protection."

'Encouraging' sign

In 2018, an estimated 411 North Atlantic right whales remained, and only a quarter of them were females of breeding age. The 2018 breeding season was "heartbreaking," Brown said, because no calves were spotted.

But in the last few months four calves have been spotted in U.S. waters, something the government report and Brown called "encouraging."

Fishery closures were not popular with lobster fishermen, who protested. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

"Were we lucky? Or were the protection measures really the right ones? I think it's a little bit of both," she said. "By working together it appears that we are making a difference for these species in Canadian waters compared to what happened in 2017."

As for 2019, "only time will tell," Brown said.

Consultations and research

To develop these new rules, government officials met with fishermen, shippers, Indigenous leaders and environmental organizations for "extensive" consultations.

Réjean Comeau, president of Local 1 of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, said the fishermen got what they wanted: a 20-fathom exception and a reduced static closure.

"We are happy," he said. "We could live with that this year. It's better than last year."

He said the fishermen, whose season lasts only two months, lost time and money because of the closures last year.  

Research about the whales movements is being carried out by U.S. and Canadian scientists from the government and the community.

A government aircraft logged more than 2,075 hours in the air to track whales and enforce fisheries closures in 2018, the report said.

With files from Gabrielle Fahmy

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