Right whale deaths prompt call for Canadian snow crab import ban in U.S.

American environmental groups are urging the United States to ban Canadian snow crab imports when a new U.S. marine mammal protection act comes into force in 2022.

9 U.S. environmental groups seeking ban

Wolverine, a nine-year-old north Atlantic right whale, was the first whale death reported in 2019. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

In a series called Deep Trouble, CBC News explores the perils facing the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

American environmental groups are urging the United States to ban Canadian snow crab imports when a new U.S. marine mammal protection act comes into force in 2022.

They are using the act as a lever to pressure Canada to do more to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, including demanding new restrictions on the Atlantic region's lucrative lobster fishery.

The act will ban seafood imports from countries without fishing restrictions comparable to marine mammal protections in place for United States fisheries.

Twenty right whales have been found dead in Atlantic Canada over the last three years from a variety of causes, including snow crab gear entanglement and ship strikes.

Snow crab 'needs to be banned'

"We do believe that, at this point, at least Canadian snow crab needs to be banned from the United States," said Sarah Uhlemann, program director of the Seattle-based Center for Biological Diversity.

Uhlemann was one of nine conservation groups who signed a letter sent Tuesday to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) urging it to "press the Canadian government to immediately strengthen right whale protections, in order to avoid an import ban and to help save the species from extinction."

Canada has adopted a number of measures since 2017, which is when 12 right whales were found dead in Canadian waters.

Those include a static closure in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, increased surveillance, "moving" closures when right whales are spotted in an area, marked gear for crab fisheries and reducing floating rope.

Canada hasn't done enough, say American conservationists

U.S. conservationists say Canada hasn't gone far enough with its measures.

"We urge the United States to consider Canada's failure to adopt measures that the United States requires of its fishermen, particularly U.S. requirements for near-universal gear marking and sinking groundline, and broader application of bycatch reduction measures throughout the right whale's range," said the letter.

It also faults Canada for not meeting a U.S. standard known as "potential biological removal," which is the number of whales that can be killed and still have the population grow.

For the North Atlantic right whale, it is is 0.9.

"Less than one whale a year can die. Essentially, Canada's way over that. They've averaged, Canada's averaged more than two right whales a year to be killed in snow crab gear in the past three years," said Uhlemann.

Why N.S. lobster industry should be concerned

The environmentalists also say Canada has not done enough to protect right whales from fixed-gear fisheries outside the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where most of the deaths have been observed.

That includes the most valuable fishery in Canada — the lobster fishery in southern Nova Scotia.

Two areas, one off Nova Scotia and another in the Bay of Fundy, are already subject to long-standing area closures.

And in Nova Scotia, the biggest lobster fishing zones are not open when right whales are in Canadian waters.

Still, the U.S. environmentalists said closures should not be dependent on surveillance and the discretion of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

"Protections and by-catch measures are needed throughout the right whale's Canadian range, particularly as right whale migratory patterns become less predictable," said Uhlemann.

"We do know that there have been right whale entangled and killed in Canadian lobster gear in the past, in 2004 and 2008. We also know that the lobster gear doesn't require gear marking in Canada at this point."

Snow crab is unloaded from two fishing boats in Dartmouth, N.S., on Feb. 14, 2000. (The Canadian Press)

Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada, said the industry has taken steps to protect the whales, but the "blanket ban the conservation groups are advocating would impose unnecessary economic hardship across many small coastal communities without reducing the risk profile to marine mammals."

"The lobster sector shares the desire of all Canadians that recovery of the endangered North Atlantic right whale remain an important conservation priority," Irvine said in an emailed statement.

Canada responds

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it has reacted to threats to right whales from gear entanglements and ship strikes.

"The measures take into account the best available science and input from partners including NOAA, stakeholders, experts, academia, non-governmental organizations and Indigenous communities," DFO spokesperson Robin Jahn said in a statement.

Environmentalist Sean Brilliant of the Canadian Wildlife Federation doesn't accept that Canada has lower standards than those in the United States.

For example, gear marking requirements do not apply to lobster fishermen in "Maine waters" close to shore.

But with eight dead whales found in Canada this year, he's not surprised by the demands from conservationists south of the border.

"I don't think its sabre rattling. I think that there is a possibility that the U.S. could do something along these lines. It really is incumbent on us in Canada, on the industries, on the NGOs in this country to work together and to continue to try and find a solution so that we aren't killing whales every year," Brilliant said.


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.


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