P.E.I. lobster fishermen want exemption from new gear rule aimed at protecting whales

The Prince Edward Island Fishermen's Association says breakaway gear to help protect North Atlantic right whales may not make sense for the lobster fishery here.

'We know that here in P.E.I. the risk is lower than in other areas,' says Melanie Giffin

The lobster fishery is scheduled to open again in P.E.I. on May 1. Fishermen use specialized marked gear now so any lost ropes can be traced back. (CBC)

Island lobster fishermen should be be exempt from using gear designed to break free in the event of a whale entanglement, according to the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association (PEIFA). 

The PEIFA wrote a letter to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to request lobster fishermen be exempt from new rules, which are expected to become mandatory by the end of 2022. 

The group says sighting data shows the endangered North Atlantic right whale is rarely in P.E.I. lobster fishing grounds. 

"They're not typically transiting near P.E.I. or feeding near P.E.I.," said Melanie Giffin, a marine biologist with the PEIFA. 

There were no deaths of North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters in 2020. The federal government has introduced speed restrictions and area closure rules in recent years. (CBC)

"Historically there's never been a documented case of a North Atlantic right whale being entangled in Prince Edward Island lobster fishing gear," she said. 

"We know in P.E.I. the risk is lower than in other areas." 

Giffin said there would still be protections if a whale was spotted in P.E.I. waters, and fishing areas would still close. 

Protection plan announced recently

DFO announced its protection plan for North Atlantic right whales Thursday.

Rules include speed restrictions, regulations around closing fishing areas, and the use of break-free gear that would snap free from a whale.

Right whales are considered critically endangered with about 365 remaining in the world's oceans. (CBC)

No right whale deaths were reported in Canadian waters in 2020, but from 2017-2019, a total of 20 dead right whales were found. 

Gear requirements delayed

The new rules were supposed to be in place by the end of 2021, but officials with DFO said testing of the new fishing gear and phasing-in the new rules has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gear will now be required by the end of 2022.

Melanie Giffin shows some sample gear that is designed to break in the case of a whale entanglement. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"Harvesters were unable to do the level of testing we would have wanted," said Adam Burns, director general of fisheries resource management for DFO. 

He said fishermen and officials need more time to study break-free equipment.

"We want to make sure that we're consulting with industry and getting their views," 

Problems with break-free gear during testing

Giffin said lobster fishermen based out of Miminegash tested some of the specialty break-free gear last year but it didn't go well. 

Giffin points to an area on a test rope called a weak braided sleeve that stretched when tested on P.E.I. The sleeve is supposed to work by holding two ends of a regular rope, creating a point where it can break more easily. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"You could see the first day with the first haul of traps, it didn't perform the way we were hoping," Giffin said.

She said the specialized rope stretched too much and crews were concerned about their safety using it and felt there was risk of losing gear in the water. 

"If it stretches out too much the fear becomes that it's just going to snap," she said.

"I think the postponement is good for everyone involved." 

She said it's good to have more time for DFO to study the issue and for fishermen to prepare for any upcoming changes.

"Until there is some more scientific evidence that shows the lobster fishers on P.E.I. pose a big risk to the North Atlantic right whales, we do feel like there could be an exemption in place," Giffin said.

She said they have not received a response yet from DFO. 

More from CBC P.E.I.


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