Another right whale found dead as US groups mull call for import ban on Canadian snow crab

Published on
October 26, 2017

A coalition of U.S.-based environmental groups are calling for a U.S. import ban on Canadian snow crab in order to increase pressure on Canada to do more to protect the North Atlantic right whale. 

Earlier this month, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation – North America wrote to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canadian Fisheries Minister Dominique LeBlanc and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service asking for urgent action in defense of the North Atlantic right whale.

Another dead right whale was found off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on Monday, 23 October, bringing the total number of mortalities to at least 16 in 2017. The deaths have reduced the known population of North Atlantic right whales to 442 animals. At an annual meeting of right whale experts earlier this week, scientists predicted the species will be extinct by 2040 if substantive changes aren’t made to better protect the whales.

The primary causes for this year’s right whale deaths are believed to be ship hits and entanglement in fishing gear, specifically crab traps and lines. The increased fishing gear entanglements coincide with an increase in crab quota in Canada as well as a surprising, unexplained shift in summer habitat by the right whales from their traditional feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Environmental groups have launched a campaign asking U.S. elected officials to considering applying pressure on Canada with the threat of an import ban on the highly lucrative Arctic snow crab. The groups have also served notice on the U.S. government of their intent to sue under terms of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act if the 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 2017.

Their notice to the U.S. Fisheries Service also asserts that its management of the American lobster fishery violates these acts. They seek to force the agency to re-examine the fishery’s impacts on North Atlantic right whales and adopt additional measures to prevent more entanglements in the future.

“Right whales risk spiralling toward extinction if we don’t protect them from deadly fishing gear,” Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, explained. “This has been a tragic year for a species already teetering on the brink. U.S. and Canadian officials need to do everything they can to prevent gear entanglements and the slow, painful deaths they can cause.”

Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, noted that in addition to the increased mortalities, North Atlantic right whales are reproducing at lower levels.

“Only five right whale calves were born this season, the lowest number in recent years,” Davenport said. “New research shows that the stress of dragging heavy gear and ropes around is preventing females from successfully bearing young. Whale entanglements are preventable, and the U.S. and Canadian governments need to step up and act before it’s too late.”

Between 2010 to 2016, entanglements accounted for 85 percent of diagnosed right whale mortalities, Davenport said.

LeBlanc, the Canadian fisheries minister, has scheduled a meeting of officials from the fishing, tourism, and shipping industries, as well as environmental groups, indigenous people and U.S. officials in Moncton, New Brunswick, on 9 November to discuss further action.

“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,” Minister LeBlanc told the Canadian Press.

This summer, LeBlanc ordered a Gulf crab fishery to close two days early and instructed his department to look for more whale-friendly rope and fishing procedures.  10-knot speed limit was also imposed on all shipping in the Gulf of St. Lawrence while right whales are present.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s Monsell said her group appreciated the actions taken by the Canadian government this summer, but that more action needs to be taken in advance of next year’s whale migration.

“Such measures could include a ship speed rule that requires large vessels to slow down in certain areas at certain times of year and restrictions on the use of certain fishing gear at certain times in important right whale habitat,” she said.

If those measures aren’t taken, Monsell said her group may become more insistent that the U.S. government ban the import of snow crab from Canada. 

“We are currently considering all of our potential options to influence strong action to protect right whales in both countries,” she said. “Both the Canadian and U.S. governments need to do everything in their power to save these amazing animals before it’s too late.”

Reporting from Eastern Canada

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