An alliance of U.S. environmental groups is preparing to ask Washington to ban imports of Canadian snow crab unless Ottawa steps up its efforts to save the endangered Atlantic right whales.
Another right whale was found dead in the Atlantic this week, bringing to 16 the total number of the endangered mammals which have died off the East Coast of Canada and the U.S. this summer.
Examinations show most of the whales died after being hit by ships or getting tangled in fishing gear and 13 of those deaths occurred in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence.
There are fewer than 450 right whales left in the world and scientists fear if extraordinary measures aren't taken to stop the slaughter they will disappear entirely within 20 years.
Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said a provision of the United States Fishermen's Protection Act allows the White House to ban imports of fish or seafood from a country if that catch is affecting conservation efforts of an endangered species.
Monsell said snow crab is the target, because Canada has no mandatory regulations in place for snow grab gear or lines that could help keep whales from getting caught in them and Canada itself has acknowledged seven whales got tangled in snow crab lines this summer, and two of them died.
On Sept. 18, a dead right whale was towed to shore still attached to a large snow crab trap.
She also said Canada doubled its quota for the snow crab fishery this year.
"We can't know that's what caused the deaths, but we do know there was an increased amount of gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and it was there longer, so it overlapped with whale season in a way it hasn't before," Monsell said.
She said the groups are only in the early stages of considering how to handle the Canadian problem so they haven't yet approached the U.S. government about banning the snow crab.
Snow crab is Canada's second most valuable fish export and about three-quarters of Canada's crab exports go to the United States, meaning the threat of losing access to that market is significant.
Monsell's group was one of four which together issued a 15-page letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Fisheries Minister Dominic Leblanc on Oct. 2, asking for urgent action. She said they haven't yet received a response.
In a statement to The Canadian Press LeBlanc said the government is considering all options to protect the whales, including fisheries management.
"Our government takes the protection, conservation and recovery of the North Atlantic right whale very seriously and we are committed to taking every step necessary to help prevent future whale deaths," said Leblanc.
Leblanc is hosting a meeting of officials from the fishing, tourism and shipping industry, as well as environmental groups, Indigenous communities and U.S. officials in Moncton, N.B., on Nov. 9, where he says "the sole agenda item will be how to prevent this summer's deaths from recurring."
The Canadian letter acknowledges Canada has taken some action, including imposing a temporary speed limit for larger vessels in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, although the conservation groups say that speed limit has to be made permanent.
Monsell said the speed limit is the same as one imposed in U.S. waters, which scientists believe has helped protect whales from being hit and killed by ships.
The groups have also served notice to the U.S. government of intent to sue if the American government doesn't live up to its obligations to protect the whales. The 60-day required notice period before a lawsuit is filed ends in early December.
"We need action from both Canadian and U.S. governments," said Monsell. "It's incredible how many right whales have died this year."