Whale-watchers ask why herring fishery carries on where right whales sighted

A whale-watching tour operator and one of her customers say they are concerned nothing was done to stop herring seiners after two North Atlantic right whales were spotted in the Bay of Fundy off Brier Island, N.S.

DFO says there is no plan for closure since whales were not in a critical habitat area

North Atlantic right whales are endangered and have been reproducing in extremely low numbers since 2010. (Lisa Conger/Northeast Fisheries Science Center under NOAA Permit #17355)

A whale-watching tour operator and one of her customers say they are concerned nothing was done to stop herring seiners after two North Atlantic right whales were spotted in the Bay of Fundy off Brier Island, N.S. 

Ontario tourist Dan Blackman saw a right whale as the Mariner Cruises Whale and Seabird Tours boat was getting near the North Point lighthouse early Thursday afternoon.

"There was a whale coming out the water ... we witnessed personally, a North Atlantic right whale. It had no dorsal fin so it was quite recognizable. 

"It came up a second time and then we saw the tail."

Blackman, who has been on more than 30 whale-watching tours said those onboard recognized it as a right whale immediately. 

Sightings reported

Blackman said another whale-watching tour operator saw another right whale earlier in the day halfway down Long Island on the Digby Neck and reported the sightings to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Thinking immediate action would be taken, Blackman and tour operator Penny Graham were surprised to see herring seiners moving into the area for a night of fishing in the place where they had seen the whale. 

"My big concern is the herring fishery," Blackman said. "The seiners have been moving in every night. The last three nights they have been right in the place we spotted the whale this afternoon. Right in the opening between Brier Island and Long Island.

"We're watching the herring seiners come in, and they set up with these huge nets which are endangering the whale." 

Blackman made calls to Fisheries officials but said his calls kept being redirected.

"It's ridiculous that this is being allowed." Blackman said of the herring fishery. 

No closure, says DFO

DFO says a harvesters notice was issued on Aug. 17 indicating two right whales were spotted swimming in the Bay of Fundy on the Nova Scotia side that day during a surveillance​ flight. 

But based on the information the department had at the time, there was "no immediate plan to implement any temporary measures in the area," the notice said.

"At this time, fishing will continue but harvesters should be on alert."

In an email from Friday, Lauren Sankey, a communications officer with Fisheries, said temporary closures have been put in place when right whales were observed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Roseway Basin and off Grand Manan.

The closures were for non-tended fixed-gear fisheries on a grid-by-grid basis within critical habitat areas.

The black dot on the map indicates a North Atlantic right whale observed Thursday and posted on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans interactive map, which shows the latest right whale sightings. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

"Based on the information DFO has at this time, there is no immediate plan to implement any temporary measures as the sighting was not within a critical habitat area, where we expect to see whales congregating," Sankey wrote.

"At this time, fishing can continue but harvesters should be on alert."

A system of static and temporary closures was imposed this year after the deaths of at least 18 North Atlantic right whales in U.S. and Canadian waters last year. Twelve of the whales died off the Canadian coast.

The right whale population is estimated at between 400 and 450. Of those, only about 100 breeding females remain.

Questions over closures

Penny Graham, owner and operator of Mariner Cruises Whale and Seabird Tours, questions why other fisheries in New Brunswick were closed so quickly after right whales were sighted, but it wasn't happening off Nova Scotia. 

"We've got a seiner right in on the shore, right where those whales were spotted, and that's dangerous," she said. "There's a lot of feed there and that's what's bringing the whales in." 

Fisheries shouldn't "pretend to protect these amazing creatures," Graham said. 

A Fisheries Department interactive map shows the latest right whale observations, from Aug. 10 to Aug. 24. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

"Either they don't care and they're not going to do anything or they're going to take action to make sure that it's looked after."

Graham said the seiners are about two-tenths of a kilometre offshore in 18 fathoms "and scoop up whatever they want."  

"I'm sorry, that's not acceptable. We want to know why DFO didn't keep those seiners out of the area where the whales are."