Nova Scotia

Changes can be made right now to save right whales, says fisherman

Fishermen in Nova Scotia's snow crab industry say there's no need to wait for new government regulations to make changes that will save North Atlantic right whales.

'At no point do I think that this is an impossible task,' says fisherman about preventing right whale deaths

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said the death of this two-year-old female North Atlantic right whale, found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Sept. 15, was case of "severe entanglement." (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Fishermen in Nova Scotia's snow crab industry say they are already making some immediate changes to prevent more deaths of North Atlantic right whales. 

Gordon MacDonald, managing director of the Snow Crab Fishermen's Association off of southeastern Cape Breton, ​said he and other fishermen are already looking at ways to reduce the amount of slack rope attached to traps during the April-to-August snow crab season.

"It's easy, it's quick and we can get on it right away and see how that goes and then get into other things."

He said the industry doesn't need to wait for more study and changes to government regulations.

"We can't wait for that development to start doing things that have a positive impact," he said.

This photo shows a right whale entangled in gear in the Bay of Fundy. (International Fund for Animal Welfare)

This year, at least 16 right whales have been found dead in waters off the east coast of Canada and the United States — that's more than three per cent of the species dead within a few months.

Of the seven whales necropsied this summer, four had signs of blunt force trauma compatible with ship strikes and two likely died from entanglements in fishing gear. Cause of death on the seventh was inconclusive.

Earlier this week, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium sent a formal letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying more research is not needed. Instead they asked for "bold and swift action to reduce fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes." 

Humans to blame in 80% of deaths

Scientists, fishermen, large-vessel operators and Indigenous groups will meet Nov. 9 in Moncton, N.B., to work on how to reduce the mounting numbers of dead right whales turning up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

At no point do I think that this is an impossible task.- Gordon MacDonald on preventing right whale deaths

Eighty per cent of all right whale deaths are caused by humans, said Julie van der Hoop, a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, at a recent meeting of right whale experts.

MacDonald also attended that meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. He said the number of people from different industries present shows an unprecedented commitment to saving the whales.

"I mean you saw the shipping industry there, you saw fishermen there, you saw government regulators there as well as scientists and we're all sitting there communicating about what's going on and concerned about ways to prevent that," he said. 

"And so if that isn't progress, I don't know what is." 

Ropeless gear

MacDonald said even though his fishery is nowhere near the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where 12 of 16 dead whales were found this year, they're trying to make their area safer for whales traveling in his area. 

Several proposals have been suggested to help reduce the likelihood of whales getting caught in gear including the use of either ropeless gear or breakaway ropes.

One ropeless-fishing gear proposal includes a spool of line attached to a series of traps on the ocean floor. The spool can be released either by a timer or triggered by an acoustic transponder — an electronic device that emits a signal, triggering the release of the traps from the ocean floor.

A power-point slide illustrates how proposed ropeless fishing gear works. The system involves sinking a spool of line on the ocean floor that can be released acoustically. (Presentation at North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium meeting)

"To some extent, it's about keeping it simple," said MacDonald. That's why the fishermen support reducing lengths of slack rope attached to traps as an immediate step.

MacDonald said fishermen have concerns about possible problems with ropeless fishing gear.

One is that the ropeless electronic systems could malfunction, leaving traps stranded on the bottom.

Also, the technology is not sanctioned by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in part because the lack of surface buoys means fisheries officers cannot monitor traps and prevent potential illegal fishing.

This North Atlantic right whale, entangled in Cape Cod, Mass., was dragging a line caught in its baleen. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #932-1905)

Breakaway ropes

Another suggestion is for fishermen to start using specially designed break-away ropes that right whales could escape if they get entangled. 

During last month's meeting, Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium, said rope manufacturers started making stronger synthetic ropes in the 1990s. She said the weaker ropes could "drastically" reduce entanglement deaths.

The use of braided "release" rope has been suggested as a way to reduce the number of fatal fishing gear entanglements in right whales. (Presentation at North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium meeting)

But MacDonald said while breakaway ropes could work in some areas, it's not a feasible solution for Area 23, off southeastern Cape Breton, where fishermen work in depths of 200-metres.

He said the strain of pulling traps from that depth is hard on even the stronger ropes.

"It's like pulling a piece of plywood, a board, and if you've ever tried to pull a board crossways through the water you'll understand that the resistance is huge … the strain on it is such that I break ropes through the season as it is," he said.

Rescuers in Cape Cod, Mass., fire a barbed arrow in an effort to free a North Atlantic right whale from a mass of ropes. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #932-1905)

For its part, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said in a statement that "modifications to fishing gear and changes to fishing practices may be considered for the 2018 fishing season."

Despite the challenges, MacDonald remains optimistic solutions can be found to save the species and keep East Coast economic engines like the cruise ship industry and the fishery running. 

"It's still doable. At no point do I think that this is an impossible task," he said.


Seasick marine biologist, turned journalist. She lives in Halifax. In 2018 she helped lead a team of reporters and editors to win the RTDNA Ron Laidlaw Continuing Coverage Award for work on the Deep Trouble series. The series delved into the plight of the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. She can be reached at, on Twitter @cassiehwilliams