With billions at stake, Canada to show U.S. its fisheries protect whales

In an effort to maintain access to the lucrative U.S. seafood market, Canada will submit a "progress report" to Washington this month outlining steps to protect whales and other marine mammals that interact with more than 200 Canadian fisheries.

Canada to submit progress report to U.S. outlining steps being taken to protect whales, marine mammals

In this April 10, 2008, file photo, a North Atlantic right whale dives in Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown, Mass. (Stephan Savoia/Associated Press)

In a series called Deep Trouble, CBC News explores the perils facing the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

In an effort to maintain access to the lucrative U.S. seafood market, Canada will submit a "progress report" to Washington this month outlining steps to protect whales and other marine mammals that interact with more than 200 Canadian fisheries.

The submission will be the first test of Canada's ability to meet upcoming requirements in the United States Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and comes as three critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are believed entangled in fishing gear in Canadian waters. Efforts to free them are set for Tuesday, a day after Canada announced additional measures to protect North Atlantic right whales.

In total, six right North Atlantic right whales have died this year in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with none of the deaths directly attributed to fishing gear. 

Billions in exports at stake

By Jan. 1, 2022, all countries with fisheries interacting with marine mammals that export to the U.S. will have to demonstrate they have marine mammal protections that are the same or of comparable "effectiveness" to measures taken in the U.S.

The onus is on fishing nations to prove their programs and measures to address unintended catch of marine mammals meet U.S. standards.

Canada is the largest seafood supplier by value to the U.S. at $4.3 billion in 2017.

In July, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) will submit a "progress report" detailing protections for over 200 Canadian fisheries that interact with marine mammals, including the two most valuable and closely watched — lobster ($2.1 billion) and crab ($1 billion).

A preliminary response from the U.S., Canada's primary export market for seafood, is expected in September.

Failure could be 'catastrophic'

Melanie Sonnenberg represents inshore lobster fishermen on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick.

"If it doesn't go well, it would be devastating for us because on the surface it has the potential to shut a fishery down in terms of what they're taking into the United States and we can't afford that," Sonnenberg said if Canada did not meet the requirements under the MMPA.

A December 2018 DFO briefing to stakeholders was no less stark.

According to the presentation, "a U.S. import ban on Canadian fish and seafood could be catastrophic for Canadian fisheries."

Why Canada is 'confident'

DFO's director general of fisheries resource management, Adam Burns, said Canada has worked closely with the fishing industry to increase protections for whales, especially those threatened by so-called "pot" fisheries that use bottom traps with lines reaching the surface.

In 2017, snow crab fishing gear was identified as the cause of two of the 12 deaths that year of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In 2017, snow crab fishing gear was identified as the cause of two of the 12 deaths of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

Since then, the department, often citing the looming MMPA, has imposed a large number of measures, including reducing floating lines, a variety of fishing area closures and mandatory reporting of interactions.

"We have a world-leading fisheries management regime and are very confident that we will ultimately achieve those comparability findings," Burns said from Ottawa.

Canada's submission should not come as a surprise to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which will evaluate Canada's efforts.

The two agencies share best practices and approaches used in each jurisdiction.

Adam Burns is Fisheries and Oceans Canada's director general of fisheries resource management. (CBC)

"Coming out of this initial progress report as they're calling it, we'll continue the ongoing conversations that we've been having over the past couple of years," Burns said.

"We will be meeting with them in the coming weeks to continue those discussions to identify areas where they have questions and to provide responses to those questions."

'The world is watching'

In the Atlantic, fishermen have complained fishing area closures have gone too far.

Sonnenberg is still rankled by a 15-day closure in 2017 triggered by a single sighting of a right whale in a critical habitat zone in the Bay of Fundy off southern New Brunswick.

However, she said, attitudes are shifting.

"It was very harsh, but at the end of the day the world is watching, and I think that that's what the government is tuned into, and we're starting to change our opinions or understanding what's at stake," she said.

In April 2018, U.S. senators and congressmen called on the NOAA to urgently apply the MMPA to all Canadian fisheries, particularly lobster and snow crab, that cause incidental harm to North Atlantic right whales.

The politicians called for a ban on imports from those fisheries if Canada is found lacking.

What about seals?

It's not yet clear what Canada will do about another marine mammal, seals, especially grey seals whose population has been exploding in Atlantic Canada.

DFO issues large numbers of "nuisance licences" permitting fishermen to kill seals.

The department estimated 3,732 grey seals were killed in the region in 2016, acknowledging most fishermen with licences do not report the number they kill.

"It's not like these are on the endangered list. There's issues with this and they have to be dealt with and that is a flashpoint because it goes against the whole concept of marine mammal protection," Sonnenberg said.

Big companies weigh in

Paul Lansbergen, president of the Fisheries Council of Canada, which represents large boat fishing fleets and processors, said almost two-thirds of fisheries are certified as environmentally sustainable.

"I think that we should be very proud of how we do things in Canada. And sometimes we complain about how stringent the regulatory regime is, but that does give us good standing in the marketplace."

He believes the U.S. is likely to focus not on how Canada deals with seal, but right whales.

Canada's most lucrative fishing export to the U.S. is lobster. (Kayla Hounsell/CBC)

"The Marine Mammal Protection Act does include all marine mammals, but I think it also depends on where the U.S. wants to place its emphasis on which mammal species might be at greatest risk," Lansbergen said.

The progress reports filed by Canada and other countries this month are the first milestones on the road to implementing the MMPA.

In March 2021, Canada will formally apply for a comparability finding for each fishery. Results are expected in the fall of 2021.

About the Author

Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.


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