There are fewer North Atlantic right whales than there are days in a year, and a slew of efforts are underway to increase numbers. However, new recommendations on right whale protection would hinder that progress if adopted, say experts.

Last week, the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans put out a report with 48 recommendations to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Sean Brillant, senior conservation biologist for marine programs at the Canadian Wildlife Federation, said many of the suggestions, which focus on protection and fisheries management measures affecting the 340 North Atlantic right whales in existence, are positive and build on conservation work that is already underway. However, a handful of the proposals concerning fishery closures are a disappointment, he said.

“These recommendations are unfounded… These are all playing with fire,” said Brillant, who testified at committee hearings leading up to the report.

As of now, if one right whale is spotted, that triggers a 15-day fishery closure for an area of about 2,000 square kilometres. The new recommendations suggest three right whales need to be spotted for a 10-day closure to occur. They also weaken closure extensions if more whales are seen: three whales — compared to one — need to be spotted to prompt an extension, which is also for a shorter period than the current legislation.

Currently, if there is one more whale sighting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence — an especially active zone for the animals — the area is closed for the whole season. The report does not have any recommendations for seasonal closures in that area and says DFO should avoid closures in areas the whales travel through but that are not feeding grounds. Rather than specify different rules for different areas, it lumps together the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin.

“In other parts of Atlantic Canada, closures will be considered on a case-by-case basis, with special consideration for sightings of three or more whales or a mother and calf pair,” reads the report.

The fishery closures are one of the few ways humans can act to protect the whales, explained Brillant. The closures specifically affect fisheries that use non-tended fixed gear, such as crab and lobster traps, which are dropped in the ocean and then gathered later. In between deployment of the traps and harvesting, fishing lines run parallel from the seafloor to buoys on the ocean’s surface, which leads to whales getting entangled. Ghost gear — lost or abandoned fishing gear — is also an issue.

A North Atlantic right whale and her calf. Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit #15488 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Entanglement can kill whales by causing drowning, starvation or injury, but it also affects their size and reproduction. Female whales used to reproduce every three years on average but now birth calves every 10 years or so. This is, in part, due to entanglement as well as diminished food sources. The species can also be killed by ship strikes.

“These recommendations are unfounded… these are all playing with fire,” said Sean Brillant of @CWF_FCF. #RightWhales #WhalePopulation

There have been no right whale deaths for a few years, following an especially concerning period between 2017, when 12 were found dead around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and 2019, when nine were killed in the same area. However, there have been entanglements: in February of this year, a whale was freed from Canadian fishing gear.

Right whales' struggle predates entanglement and ship strike issues. For thousands of years, Miꞌkmaq in the area used whale meat for food, oil for heat, bones for tools. But in the 1500s, fishers from abroad travelled across the Atlantic and overfished the whales almost to extinction. A fishing ban was put in place in 1935, but the whales have been recovering at a slow rate.

It’s not just Brillant who worries the suggested changes would harm whales. Susanna Fuller, vice-president of marine non-profit Oceans North, said current measures are proving effective and that with a population this small, one death is detrimental to recovery efforts.

She said the “laser focus” from involved parties such as the fishing industry, DFO scientists and environmental groups can’t stop now, and that more collaboration with the United States (where the whales are also vulnerable to ship strikes and entanglement) could strengthen efforts in Canada.

“At the same time, we need to make sure that as the climate changes that we know where the whales are moving next so that management measures can be put in place in new areas if needed,” she said.

Whale-safe gear

While Tonya Wimmer, executive director of the Marine Animal Response Society, agrees that reducing protections is “exceptionally worrisome,” she notes it was good to see suggestions on increasing research and access to whale-safe gear.

The Canadian Wildlife Federation has started a gear lending program, which allows fishers to use untethered gear and still fish in areas where whales are present. Rather than long lines running down to the seafloor, there are traps that use acoustic signals to locate the gear, which triggers the release of the buoy and rope or inflates a pouch to float the gear to the surface. There is also a small business, Ashored Innovations, designing ropeless gear in Nova Scotia.

The first right whale closures in 2022 took place in early May, notes Brillant, who said “it’s a very, very challenging situation” for the fishing industry.

“It slows them down,” he said. “...I'm looking forward to helping them keep fishing in a way that's not going to entangle these whales.”

DFO hasn’t shared its response to the report and its recommendations yet. The department said current measures will stay in place for at least the 2023 season. Proposed changes will be reviewed with industry, First Nations and environmental groups, Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray’s office said in an email, noting this year’s budget includes approximately $150 million for the protection of endangered whales.

In Canada, entanglement falls under DFO’s jurisdiction, and the Ministry of Transportation is responsible for minimizing vessel strikes.

A briefing note from DFO obtained by Canada's National Observer through an access-to-information request. Background via Pixabay

In a 2022 briefing note on right whale protections, prepared by DFO and obtained by Canada’s National Observer through an access-to-information request, the department said some industry groups have pushed for a relaxation of rules to reduce the impact on fisheries “even though there is little evidence that catch rates have been affected by the measures.”

It went on to say the state of the right whale population means the department was “not in a position to consider these measures for 2022.” At the same time, the document notes the majority of harvesters recognize the need to protect the species, and therefore, the need to apply protection measures.

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So, here we are again: money? or nature?

Money has almost? always won with DFO--and we've seen & suffered the consequences of that.

Personally, I don't give a rat's if the fishing conglomerates can't fill their obscene quotas.

I prefer that there continue to be, and increasingly, whales in the world.