Nova Scotia

Maritime lobster fishery sailing toward sustainability certification

Inshore lobster fishing in Canada's Maritime provinces poses a low risk to critically endangered right whales, according to the latest assessment prepared for the Marine Stewardship Council.

MSC reviewers say Maritime lobster fishery poses low risk to critically endangered right whales

The Marine Stewardship Council says inshore lobster fishing poses a low risk to the endangered North Atlantic right whale. (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press)

Inshore lobster fishing in Canada's Maritime provinces poses a low risk to critically endangered right whales, according to the latest assessment prepared for the Marine Stewardship Council.

The fishery — conducted by 5,494 licence holders — is nearing the end of a regularly scheduled evaluation to recertify that it is environmentally sustainable.

The inshore lobster fleets are on track to keep the blue MSC eco-label for another five years with only one condition: they develop an action plan to protect and conserve the whales.

One of the key tests used by MSC to evaluate all trap fisheries on the Eastern Seaboard is their impact on right whales. The remaining population is estimated at under 400.

A draft assessment released for 30 days of public comment late last month said the risk of entanglement in the Maritimes is not zero, but "the probability of interaction with North Atlantic right whales is very low," based on where and when the traps are set.

"Mortality and entanglement incidents involving the lobster trap fishery have not been reported in the last decade," said SAI Global, a risk-management company carrying out the MSC assessment.

The blue MSC eco-label tells consumers the seafood they are buying is sustainably caught. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Little overlap with whales

Lobster fishing in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick takes place during different seasons. That means ropes are in the water somewhere most of the year.

Canada's largest lobster fishery in southwest Nova Scotia takes place in the winter when the whales have left Canadian waters.

That's not the case for the spring and summer fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but the assessment did not flag any significant risk.

"Lobster traps are set close to the shore in shallow waters. There is thus low overlapping between lobster fishing grounds and areas where whales occur," SAI Global reported.

'So far, so good'

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Transport Canada have implemented speed limits, gear changes, as well as temporary and season-long fishery closures after a slew of right whale deaths in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017 and 2019.

"The takeaway is that the certifying body, the conformity assessment body, feels that the regulations and the mitigation measures in place by the shipping industry, by the harvester groups and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are very strong," said Geoff Irvine of the Lobster Council of Canada.

"So far, so good."

Fireworks explode in Sambro, N.S., on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, to mark Dumping Day, the first day of the lobster season in Lobster Fishing Area 33. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery had its MSC certification suspended in August because it did not have precautionary management strategies in place to protect the endangered species.

The condition for an action plan is the result of a new "harmonization" policy by MSC.

In this case, certification bodies are required to co-ordinate their assessments on trap fisheries that overlap with endangered species like right whales.

"This ensures that the cumulative impacts of MSC-certified fisheries are assessed consistently, that overlapping fisheries are scored in a co-ordinated way that reflects any differences, and that fisheries are working consistently to reduce their impacts," said Jay Lugar, MSC's head of fisheries outreach.

It means the same standards are applied for some shrimp and snow crab, which are required to have action plans.

Risk still being identified, says EAC

Halifax-based environmentalist Shannon Arnold said on the face of it, the inshore fishery "passes with flying colours," but she believes the assessment is too optimistic.

"We've got good measures and we're working on adopting those measures, but it doesn't mean the risk is entirely gone," said Arnold, of the Ecology Action Centre.

"We definitely do not have the evidence to show that our measures are yet fully working. You know, we still are trying to figure out the risk from all these different gears and the different seasons."

She said the American industry will notice the different outcomes between the Maritimes and Maine, where the season is year-round.

"There is some argument to say that there's a higher risk there," she said.

"They don't have the extensive measures in place that Canada has put in, but at the same time, saying that our fisheries that overlap with the right whales are no risk at all, I think it is certainly awkward for the MSC. And it will raise some eyebrows down in the U.S."



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.