OTTAWA, Canada, Nov. 1, 2018 – Wildlife and animal protection groups submitted recommendations today urging Canada’s fishery management agency to continue to expand protections for critically imperiled North Atlantic right whales. Following an unprecedented 12 right whale deaths in Canadian waters in 2017, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) closed key fishing areas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including in the entanglement-prone snow crab fishery. The agency is now considering measures for the 2019 season.
“The right whale population is plummeting as these incredible animals continue to get entangled in Canadian and US fishing gear,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director for the Center for Biological Diversity and the letter’s author. “Canada and the United States should both do their part to save these endangered whales by closing key habitat areas and moving to ropeless fishing gear. Right whales desperately need quick action.”
In today’s letter, the groups urged the DFO to maintain the closures and expand them in 2019 into other areas frequented by right whales, require comprehensive gear marking in all Atlantic Canadian fisheries, and transition trap/pot fisheries to more protective “ropeless” gear. These measures are needed to ensure Canadian fisheries can continue exporting seafood to the US market, as US law prohibits foreign seafood imports caught in a manner less protective than US requirements for marine mammals.
Fewer than 440 North Atlantic right whales likely remain. In 2017, 17 right whales — almost 4 percent of the population — were observed dead, including 12 in Canadian waters. Troublingly, scientists did not document a single right whale birth during the 2017-2018 calving season. At the current rate of decline, the North Atlantic right whale will be functionally extinct within several decades.
Just a week ago, a DFO representative attended a meeting with the fishing industry and reportedly indicated that the government is open to weakening protective measures for right whales.
“It is simply unacceptable that a government fisheries representative would cave to industry demands,” said Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute. “More restrictions, not fewer, are needed if there is to be any hope for right whales in the North Atlantic.”
In recent years, right whales have been increasingly sighted in Canada’s cool Atlantic waters, particularly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, likely due to shifting prey. In response to the 2017 deaths, DFO adopted entanglement risk reduction measures in 2018, including season-long (“static”) closures, intermittent (“dynamic”) closures when right whales were present, and—in the snow crab fishery—line-length limits and gear marking requirements to track the source of entangling gear.
“Entanglement in fishing gear is the single biggest threat to the right whale’s survival,” said Jane Davenport, senior staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “Entanglements can cause immediate death by drowning, or cause longer, drawn-out deaths by injury, infection and starvation. Entanglements also weaken females to the point that they can only calve once every 10 years, instead of every three – if they live that long.”
“Maintaining and expanding closures of key fishing areas is critical given the fact that the right whale population is declining so precipitously,” added Kathryn Kullberg, director of marine and wildlife protection for The Humane Society of the United States. “It is urgent for Canada and the US to continue to protect these magnificent whales from the suffering they endure while entangled in fishing gear.”
“Highly endangered right whales are in urgent need of increased protections from the Canadian government,” said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International/Canada. “We are calling on Fisheries and Oceans Canada to take strong and effective measures to ensure the survival of these majestic whales.”
“The ropeless technology is a lifeline the North Atlantic right whale needs for survival,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney with the marine mammals program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Continued leadership is needed from both Canada and the United States. If we fail, we will lose this iconic species.”
It is very likely that DFO’s actions reduced the risk of right whale deaths this year. Yet despite DFO’s efforts, two right whales have been found dead this year with injuries consistent with fishing gear entanglement, and at least three more have been observed entangled in Canadian waters.
“Canada’s actions this year definitely kept whales alive, but what Canada does next year and beyond will decide the fate of the entire species,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
“We commend the Canadian government for taking swift action this past summer, but these measures must be continued and expanded,” said Erica Fuller, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation. “It is also imperative that the US National Marine Fisheries Service stop their willful foot-dragging and enact similar protections before it’s too late to save this majestic species.”