Canada to introduce mandatory reporting of whale interactions this year

The phrase "Save the Whales" will take on new importance for Canadian fishermen in 2018 as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans introduces mandatory reporting for interactions Canada's commercial fishing fleets have with marine mammals.

DFO is also considering temporary closures for fishing grounds where significant numbers of whales are present

Fishing groups briefed by DFO are being told they will have to report any North Atlantic right whale sighting. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #932-1905)

The phrase "Save the Whales" will take on new importance for Canadian fishermen in 2018 as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans introduces mandatory reporting for interactions Canada's commercial fishing fleets have with marine mammals.

The deaths of a dozen critically endangered right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence last year is the driving force behind the effort, which has already resulted in changes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery, whose gear has been implicated in some of the deaths.

The department is also considering what it calls "dynamic closures" in fishing grounds to ensure safe passage for whales.

Doug Wentzell, DFO's director of fisheries management for the Maritimes, said mandatory reporting is a national initiative and will start as a condition on all new licences in 2018.

"Depending on the duration of licences, we may also have to amend existing licences," Wenztell said in an interview at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.

This North Atlantic right whale was freed from fishing lines in the Bay of Fundy near Campobello Island, N.B., last year. (International Fund for Animal Welfare)

The department has not issued licence conditions yet, nor has it defined what it means by interactions.

Fishing groups briefed by DFO are being told they will have to report any sighting.

DFO said the information will be used to make management decisions and align Canada with requirements in U.S. fisheries, which have already been modified to protect whales.

By 2021, all seafood imported into the United States must be caught under a fishery regime equivalent to the American industry.

Are rolling closures on the horizon?

Canada is also considering the feasibility of dynamic closures in fishing grounds, which are temporary or rolling closures in targeted areas where whales are present in numbers deemed significant.

Unlike mandatory reporting, there are no timelines for the implementation of dynamic closures.

Wentzell said no decision has been made and discussions are preliminary.

"We are also looking at ways we can manage any management decisions we have to make in terms of potential closures of a fishing area in a way that minimizes the impact on industry and also allows marine mammals to have safe passage," he said.

A ropeless solution?

Temporarily shutting down fishing grounds after whale sightings proved impractical when it was tried — and later abandoned — in the United States.

Tim Werner, a senior scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, which is based at the New England Aquarium in Boston, said the population of right whales will not come back until gear entanglements are reduced.

"If you could come up with a way of fishing that removed those ropes from the water column, that is the only method we can confidently say will eliminate the problem of entanglements," he said.

Werner said he sees hope in the development of ropeless gear, which involves storing buoys and ropes on the bottom of the ocean floor and then triggering it to float to the surface for retrieval.

A lobster fishery in Australia already uses ropeless fishing equipment.

"I'm not saying its something we could implement tomorrow in either Canada or the U.S., but there are enough fishermen in both countries that are very interested in testing the technologies to see that they might become viable," said Werner.

"It's not as far fetched as you might think."

Snow crab fishery under pressure

As one of the targets made partly to blame in last year's debacle, the Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery is under the most pressure.

It's facing the potential suspension of its Marine Stewardship Council certification, a stamp of approval that tells consumers the fishery is environmentally sustainable.

There have been changes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery, whose gear has been implicated in the deaths of several North Atlantic right whales. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

The London-based organization launched an expedited audit in late 2017.

The industry hopes last year was an anomaly. 

The unexpected arrival of large numbers of right whales coincided with a doubling of the snow crab quota, the dumping of more traps and an extension of the season to ensure crab processing plant workers in New Brunswick qualified for employment insurance.

Fleet taking action

The largest fleet in the Gulf — the Area 12 Midshore Traditional Fleet — has proposed reducing the number of traps in the southern Gulf by almost 38 per cent, from 46,372 traps in 2017 to 28,799 traps this year.

Its other proposals include a whale rescue team, a project to recover lost gear, a pilot project to test ropeless technology on a couple of vessels and an earlier start to the season before the whales arrive.

The industry will meet with DFO on Feb. 28 in Moncton to discuss next steps for the area's snow crab fishery.

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

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.