New Brunswick

U.S. groups call on Canada to do more to protect North Atlantic right whales

An alliance of research and conservation groups in the United States is urging Canada to do more — with lower speed limits and better-timed snow-crab fisheries — to protect the North Atlantic right whale.

Another North Atlantic whale was found dead near Cape Cod, Mass., last week

The body of a North Atlantic right whale was found off Massachusetts last week, the 16th of the endangered animals to be found dead off the U.S. and Canadian coasts this year. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

An alliance of research and conservation groups in the United States is urging Canada to do more — with lower speed limits and better-timed snow-crab fisheries — to protect the North Atlantic right whale.

Last week, the body of a right whale was found off the coast of Massachusetts, the 16th whale to be found dead this year.

There are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and the spate of deaths alarmed those trying to protect the endangered mammals.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration review of right whales says the mammals are experiencing low reproduction, declining abundance and changes in the availability of food.

The U.S. alliance said it has already asked the federal government to impose a speed limit for ships in areas the whales visit at certain times of the year.

"We asked that the Canadian government to implement a ship speed rule for next year and in future years to reduce the risk of ship strikes by requiring ships to slow down to 10 knots or less in certain areas," said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

In August, after 10 whales had already been found dead in Canadian waters, the federal government ordered a temporary speed limit of 10 knots for vessels at least 20 metres in length in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The lower limit was to last until whales left in the fall, and the government didn't say anything about future slowdowns. 

While any entanglement of a right whale is a concern, it's particularly a concern with snow crab gear because the gear is just so heavy.-Kristen Monsell

Science is showing that 10 knots or less, "significantly reduces mortality of right whales from ship strikes," Monsell said in an interview with Information Morning Fredericton.

The U.S. group has launched a lawsuit against the U.S.government for not doing enough to protect whales from gear and entanglements.

The group has also said it is preparing to ask the U.S. government to ban snow crab imports from Canada because whales have become entangled in the fishing gear.

Early closure of fishery

In the summer, the Canadian government closed a crab fishery early because of the entanglements, but the U.S. alliance wants Canada to do more.

In 2015 and 2016, Monsell said, the fishing industry was responsible for at least three right whale entanglements in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, resulting in the death of one of the whales.  

All seven of the whale entanglements this year are believed to have been caused by snow crab fishing gear, which can weigh up 1,000 pounds.

This two-year-old female right whale was found dead on Sept. 15. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"Snow crab gear is becoming an increasing problem for right whales," said Monsell, who attended the recent North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium's annual meeting in Halifax.

"While any entanglement of a right whale is a concern, it's particularly a concern with snow crab gear because the gear is just so heavy."

She said there have also been discussions about experimenting with new technology that would mean, ropeless fishing gear in the water.

"It's the rope that's the problem for entanglement," she said. "If you're reducing the amount of line in the water, that will reduce the risk of entanglement."

Gear in water longer

While Monsell believes both industry and the Canadian government are in the best position to implement these changes, although the government has allowed more snow crab to be caught in the gulf.  

A North Atlantic right whale entangled near Cape Cod, Mass. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #932-1905)

"We've heard that that led to a significant amount of gear in the water for a longer amount of time, at a time when right whales are there," she said.

"You're getting a significant overlap of both gear and right whales in a way that hadn't been happening previously."

She said reducing next year's quota or shifting season dates so it's not overlapping with the high concentration of right whales, are also easy measures to implement.

Better gear markings would also help to know what fisheries the gear came from and where it was set, a requirement that is needed in both countries.

"When we do see a whale entangled, and we do know it's from a fishing entanglement, we often can't identify what fishery it came from," she said.

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