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The federal government will take "every possible measure" to protect North Atlantic right whales, said Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc, responding to a deadly summer season that has seen at least 10 of the endangered creatures die in Canadian waters.
Speaking to journalists in New Brunswick on Thursday, LeBlanc said the deaths — all of which have occurred in the last two months — are not "an acceptable circumstance," and that his department has some 20 scientists working around the clock to come up with a list of actions that prevent further loss.
"The Government of Canada will bring all the resources necessary to bare to ensure that every possible measure is in place to ensure both the protection of this endangered species, the recovery of this species, but obviously the protection and safety of the men and women who have to work near these animals," said LeBlanc. "This difficult circumstance has brought together some of the world’s most impressive scientists."
Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates that fewer than 500 North Atlantic right whales are left on the planet. Since June 7, 10 of the large marine mammals have died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence — one entangled in snow crab fishing gear and three from blunt trauma, consistent with a vessel strike.
Necropsies are currently determining the cause of death for six remaining whales. As an interim protection measure, LeBlanc has asked marine vessels to reduce their speeds at night in areas with known whale sightings, and shut down the snow crab fishery in the area where the whales were found.
Calls for industry shutdown a "disservice"
The Gulf of St. Lawrence, a semi-enclosed body of water sandwiched between all four of Canada's Atlantic provinces and Quebec, has seen two to three times more traffic from North Atlantic right whales than in previous years. LeBlanc said between 80 and 100 are there now, feeding off of fatty, oily plankton as part of their annual migration.
He saw about 15 of them personally during an aerial tour east of Miscou Island on Thursday morning — "an absolutely majestic sight," he said, describing the two-hour flight. In French, he told reporters that the government has a responsibility to do everything in its power to protect the whales under the federal Species At Risk Act, and that the recent deaths of more than four per cent of their population is an "enormous source of concern."
Asked by National Observer whether Ottawa would be willing to shut down or reroute marine vessel traffic and commercial fishing in certain areas if deemed necessary by scientists, LeBlanc said it was a "good" but "also very hypothetical" question. He emphasized that his department has asked for a list of "all potential options," and will consider them all, including those that impose limits on marine traffic and fisheries.
"This list of options will necessarily involve, obviously, questions around the marine and transport and fishing industry," he said. "I think — I'm convinced — that we can take all the necessary steps while still ensuring that the fishing industry and the marine transport industry can continue to operate effectively.
"...People who say that one solution, or a possible solution, would be a complete shut-down of a particular industry or fishery, I think do a disservice to the vast array of very reasonable and possible mitigation measures that scientists tell me they're looking at."
LeBlanc wants right whales to "co-exist"
All the measures Fisheries and Oceans Canada will take to protect the whales this year, added LeBlanc, will be based on the assumption that they will return with the same high numbers next year, although scientists are still determining what brought them there in the first place.
At the end of the day, LeBlanc explained, the government will make a decision based on the best available science "in a completely transparent and open way with both the marine industry and the fishing industry."
"We need to find a way for this endangered species to safely co-exist and enable its recovery, but 10 (dead) North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in two months is not an acceptable circumstance, and we're going to be taking measures to ensure that every possible step is taken to limit that kind of unacceptable result," he said.
As it stands, solutions being tossed around by scientists include increased aerial surveillance, underwater gliders with acoustic mapping abilities that will report whale locations to nearby vessels, and heavier rope for fishing vessels that will sink below the whale's preferred food source, reducing the risk of ingestion or entanglement.
Susanna Fuller, senior marine conservation co-ordinator for Nova Scotia's Ecology Action Centre, said she believes right whale protection can be balanced with industry interests, but it will take an enormous amount of work and planning. Residents, shippers, fishers and governments were simply unprepared this year for a surge in whale traffic in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, she explained, creating a "perfect storm" that resulted in "tragedy."
Lessons from the Bay of Fundy
"I think we need to be much better at being able to predict changes like this," she told National Observer. "I think it’s all a little bit due to climate change — where food is changing, whales are going and changing their migratory patterns. We need to be able to stop stuff on a dime."
She applauded the minister's quick decision to shut down the crab fishery where the whales had been seen, and advocated for more eyes on the water, reduced vessel speeds, and a sustainable system for tracking whale traffic. She also encouraged the federal government to look toward New Brunswick's Bay of Fundy for solutions, where right whale numbers have bounced back following integrated protection measures.
"They haven’t had any of those systems in place that they had taken a long time to build up in the Bay of Fundy, and it’s just ended, quite frankly, in tragedy for the whales," said Fuller. "In the Bay of Fundy, the lobster fishery doesn’t happen right during the high migratory season, it ends in May. I do think from a fishing perspective there are ways we could change the season and it would help."
Asked about controversial federal plans to permit oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence's Laurentian Channel, she said she would "fully support" an oil and gas moratorium in the region. That's not just for the North Atlantic right whales, she added, but to protect the stocks of commercial fisheries as well.
"Increasingly, we are learning more and more about the impacts of seismic activity and noise on marine mammals and other marine creatures," she said. "I think we need to get a bit bold about really saying 'no' to oil and gas, and not just in case there's a spill or for ocean noise, but we need to be doing that for climate change anyways."