Bid to reduce right whale deaths 'extremely effective,' Canadian officials say

A year after the population of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales suffered devastating losses, Canadian officials say measures taken this season to protect the species have worked.

There are believed to be fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales remaining

Right whales have been dying in high numbers, and reproducing in extremely low numbers since 2010. (Lisa Conger/Northeast Fisheries Science Center under NOAA Permit #17355)

A year after the population of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales suffered devastating losses, Canadian officials say measures taken this season to protect the species have worked.

With the summer fishing season in the Gulf of St. Lawrence drawing to a close, the federal Fisheries Department confirmed Friday that not one whale has died as a result of a ship strike or fishing gear entanglement — the main causes for most of the deaths last season.

In all, 17 right whales died last year — 12 of them in Canadian waters — prompting concerns that the population might be on the fast track toward extinction.

The federal government responded with a series of protection measures, which included speed restrictions for boats, increased surveillance and a series of closures of fishing areas where right whales were spotted.

Some of the measures were unpopular with fishermen, but Fisheries Department spokesperson Adam Burns said they were "extremely effective."

"We know that the measures we put in place this year have had real economic impacts on some communities," he said. "But this is an important step forward for the management measures we put in place."

There are believed to be fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales remaining and, of those, only about 100 breeding females.

Number of right whale sightings up

In all, 135 individual whales were spotted this summer in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, compared with 114 confirmed sightings last year. However, no calves were seen, a troubling development that has raised new concerns about the fate of these massive mammals.

Meanwhile, the protection measures remain in place because some whales were recently spotted in the Gulf, as well as the Roseway Basin off southwestern Nova Scotia and the Grand Manan Basin in the Bay of Fundy.

The restrictions won't be lifted until the whales return to their wintering grounds farther south, Burns said.

In June, a fishermen's group took aim at a fisheries closure in the Bay of Fundy, saying the move was an overreaction because only one whale had been seen in the Grand Manan Basin.

That closure and others affected fixed-gear fishermen with licences to fish for lobster, crab, groundfish, herring and mackerel. Snow crab fishermen in the Gulf were also affected.

Burns said federal officials have already started getting ready for next season, with a series of consultations with fishing industry representatives planned for this fall in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.

A North Atlantic right whale, identified as No. 3843, was spotted in the Bay of Fundy, east of Grand Manan, N.B., on July 30, dragging an orange buoy. Rescue crews later disentangled it from the buoy. (Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium)

And in November, a committee of marine mammal experts will review scientific data that should provide a clearer picture of the whales' distribution in the region.

Fisheries officials are also taking part in pilot projects aimed at testing fishing gear that could reduce the number of entanglements.

On Aug. 5, the Campobello Whale Rescue Team managed to free an entangled right whale that had been spotted in the Bay of Fundy a week earlier. The whale, identified as an adult male, had an orange buoy trailing behind it.

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