Nova Scotia

Don't shorten trap ropes to prevent whale deaths, fishermen urge

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc has said he will bring "absolutely every protection to bear" in wake of 10 whale deaths in Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Federal fisheries minister says he'll ensure fishermen leave a 'minimum amount of rope' on the water

A North Atlantic right whale was freed from fishing lines in the Bay of Fundy near Campobello Island in 2016. (International Fund for Animal Welfare)

As federal fisheries officials consider changes in the industry to avert whale deaths, some lobster fishermen are concerned about the potential effect on their livelihood.

Last week, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the federal government will bring "absolutely every protection to bear" to prevent further deaths of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

At least 10 right whales have died in the gulf since June 7. Necropsy reports suggest some of the whales died from ship strikes and fishing-gear entanglement.

LeBlanc said he's mulled changes in fishing gear, including ensuring fishermen leave a "minimum amount of rope" floating on the surface.

It costs a fisherman $200 to replace a lobster trap, along with the time and effort that comes with the process of replacing it. (Francis MacDonald)

"If you put your crab trap in 200 feet of water, maybe you don't need 350 feet of rope because 150 feet of that will be floating across the surface," he said.

When whales eat plankton floating on the surface, there's a risk they'll get caught in the rope. 

"In deeper water  … where there are so many right whales, that represents a real threat," LeBlanc said.

Longer ropes needed

But some fishermen say longer lines are necessary to make sure balloon and buoy markers, which are connected by rope to the traps, remain on the surface in strong currents.

"Once the tide gets going, the tide will suck your balloon under, your rope will be underwater and you won't be able to get your balloon back," said Gregory Walters, who fishes lobster out of the Port Maitland area north of Yarmouth, N.S.

"If them people shorten the ropes, they won't be able to get their gear back."

Susan Beaton agrees. She fishes lobster near Antigonish, N.S., and runs a Facebook page called The Gulf Area Fishing News, which has more than 6,000 members.

She said fishermen use "the amount of rope that is prudent for the fishery we're conducting."

Fishermen say they need lines longer than the depth of the water they're in to prevent gear loss. (Grand Manan Fishermen's Association)

"We don't use miles of extra rope. I mean, that's a cost factor, right?" she said.

Beaton said Maine has implemented some measures to try to reduce whale entanglements, including using brightly colour rope and breakaway gear, which has weak points that will snap if too much pressure is exerted. She suggested increasing monitoring of whales to help prevent their deaths.

Forcing fishermen to use shorter ropes would have an economic impact, Walters said.

"It'd probably keep you in real, real shallow water and then once it gets cold, there's no lobsters in shallow water so you wouldn't make any money."

Joint responsibility

Beaton said she's worried a decision will be made too hastily.

"Changes may come into play that are completely unnecessary because next year the whales are somewhere else."

Colin Sproul of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association said it's important the Department of Fisheries and Oceans knows for sure what's causing the deaths before making changes.

"Of the 10 whales, I think one has been attributed to an entanglement," he said. "The rest are ship strikes or blunt force trauma or unknowns."

Scientists conduct a necropsy on one of the whales. (Gilbert Boyer)

He said when fishing rope is left behind floating on the water, it's often because shipping traffic has accidentally cut the lines.

"Everyone has responsibility in this. It's not just fishermen," Sproul said. "It's all too easy to blame it on fishermen. We're the easiest industry to control. Have they stopping shipping traffic in the gulf to protect these whales? … No."

The federal government closed the snow crab fishery two days early in response to the whale deaths. It has also asked mariners to slow down in the area.

A group of scientists is working to come up with recommendations, and LeBlanc said he expects to receive a report by mid-September.