New Brunswick

U.S. senators worried about whales raise spectre of ban on Canadian seafood imports

Eleven U.S. senators are calling on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to investigate whether Canadian fisheries are doing enough to protect North Atlantic right whales or if the U.S. should consider banning some seafood imports.

Letter calls on U.S. agency to investigate whether Canada is doing enough to protect endangered right whales

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey sent the letter to NOAA, a U.S. scientific agency, on behalf of himself and 10 other Democratic senators. (www.markey.senate.gov)

Eleven U.S. senators are calling on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to investigate whether Canadian fisheries are doing enough to protect North Atlantic right whales or if the U.S. should consider banning some seafood imports.

Fishermen in the United States have made "significant sacrifices" to reduce deadly interactions with the endangered whales, argue the Democratic senators, all from the northeast and led by Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a member of the commerce, science and transportation committee.

"We need to understand whether Canada's fishermen are being held to a similarly high standard in order to prevent the extinction of this species," the April 25 letter says.

Given the "urgency of the situation" after an historically deadly year of fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes, they want an answer by Sept. 15.​

The U.S. scientific agency is "considering the request," spokeswoman Kate Brogan told CBC News on Tuesday.

"NOAA continues to work closely with Canada to ensure that effective measures are in place to avoid entanglements in both Canadian and in U.S. waters," she said in an email.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada takes the protection, conservation and recovery of endangered species very seriously, and is committed to taking action to address threats to North Atlantic right whales, said spokeswoman Carole Saindon.

"The government will continue to work co-operatively with our U.S. counterparts to ensure Canada is able to meet new U.S. import provisions and avoid any potential impact to the sector on this important trade relationship," she said in an email.

The senators point out the majority of the observed North Atlantic right whale deaths last year occurred in Canadian waters. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

At least 18 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead since last year — 12 in Canadian waters and six off the coast of the U.S.

Necropsies on seven of the carcasses determined four whales died of blunt force trauma from collisions with ships, and the other three likely died from entanglements in fishing gear.

There are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. Of those, only about 100 are reproducing females,  and no new calves have been spotted yet this year in the calving grounds off Florida.

The senators acknowledge Fisheries and Oceans Canada recently announced new management measures aimed at protecting North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence by reducing the risk of fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes.

While we applaud Canada's efforts to address this ongoing crisis, we remain concerned as to whether the measures enacted will sufficiently protect North Atlantic right whales.- 11 U.S. senators

The new rules for the lobster and snow crab fisheries include designated "no-fishing" zones and "dynamic closures," where whales are spotted, earlier fishing season opening and closing, as well as gear restrictions and mandatory reporting of all lost gear.

Transport Canada has also implemented speed limits in the gulf in a bid to prevent ship strikes and to give whales a better chance of surviving a collision.

"While we applaud Canada's efforts to address this ongoing crisis, we remain concerned as to whether the measures enacted will sufficiently protect North Atlantic right whales," the five-page letter states.

They question, for example, whether other fisheries, such as sea snails and mackerel, should also be subject to the new rules and suggest fishermen should be required to use weak links and multiple traps or pots per vertical line, as required in U.S. East Coast trap/pot fisheries.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada says new fishing measures, including reducing the amount of rope, will reduce the possibility of whale entanglements. (International Fund for Animal Welfare)

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA Fisheries conducts studies that help determine whether the U.S. Department of Commerce will take action against foreign fisheries that do not protect marine mammals.

The act requires nations that export fishery products to the U.S. to be held to the same marine mammal protection standards as domestic commercial fisheries

While the rule came into effect on Jan. 1, 2017, foreign nations have been granted a five-year exemption period to develop methods to ensure their commercial fishing practices meet U.S. standards.

Last week, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc suggested the new lobster fishing rules were necessary to avoid a punitive response from the U.S. and to protect the industry.

"Under American law, if a country does not take every reasonable and possible step to protect these highly endangered marine mammals, the American government can decide, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of the United States, that the remedy is to close the American border to imports of fish and seafood from that country, which would have a devastating effect," he had said.

In addition to Markey, the other senators who signed the letter were Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Tom Carper of  Delaware, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Cory Booker and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

now