Nova Scotia

Cape Breton snow crab fishery escapes impact of right whale closures

The lucrative snow crab fishery in Cape Breton has managed to escape the impact of closures due to recent sightings of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Shutdowns due to right whale sightings had virtually no impact on fishery

While a right whale sighting earlier this month triggered a closure to the snow crab fishery in western Cape Breton, the closure had virtually no impact. (Michael Dwyer/Canadian Press/AP)

For a second year in a row, sightings of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales have shut down the snow crab fishery in waters off western Cape Breton.

But unlike closures in other parts of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, these shutdowns had virtually no impact on the area's lucrative fishery.

"That's something we're discussing. Are we lucky or are we just in that sweet spot?" said Basil MacLean, a Cape Breton snow crab fisherman and president of the Area 19 Snow Crab Fishermen's Association.

Why the shutdown was painless in Cape Breton

Earlier this month, a right whale was spotted off Chéticamp Island and another near the Bay St. Lawrence harbour. That triggered localized fishery closures to protect the whales from gear entanglements.

But the measures were imposed days before the season ended and after fishermen had already landed 99.8 percent of this year's snow crab quota.

For the 142 licence holders in western Cape Breton, the hope is their July to early September season fits between the whales' arrival and departure.

"That's kind of what we're thinking," said MacLean. "Are they migrating into the gulf in May and June and then leaving at the end of August, September?"

MacLean said a late-season right whale sighting in 2019 also tripped a painless closure in their fishing area.

Different story in New Brunswick

In New Brunswick, where the boats and quotas are larger, it's been a different story in 2020.

"Twenty-four out of 45 members from the Acadian Crabbers Association each left significant amounts of crab in the water this spring," said Robert Haché, the association's director general, in an email to CBC News.

He said the main reasons were right whale closures "that were early, widespread and continuous," and low catches throughout the season.

"The issue is not going anywhere"

Basil MacLean is taking nothing for granted.

"The issue is not going anywhere. You know it's gonna be an issue every year," he said.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada implemented protection measures after 20 right whales died in the Gulf between 2017 and 2019. In addition to fishery closures, there are speed limits and greatly increased surveillance by air, listening posts and gliders.

This year there have been no reports of right whales killed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.