Canada announces new 2021 measures to protect endangered right whales

Published on
February 22, 2021

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Canada has announced a plan to better protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale in 2021, carrying over several measures from 2020 and adding new requirements.

Protection of the North Atlantic right whale – one of the most-endangered species on the planet, with roughly 366 individuals remaining – has been an ongoing issue for fisheries in both eastern Canada and the Northeastern U.S. as gear entanglements have been linked to whale deaths. Those ongoing conflicts resulted in a U.S. court declaring the American lobster fishery in violation of the Endangered Species Act, and prompted U.S. senators, in 2019, to call on Canada to do more to protect the species.

In 2020, Canada took a number of measures intended to protect the whales in the country’s waters, many of which are being carried over into 2021. Included are strategic fishery closures in areas where a right whale is visually or acoustically detected, in an area of approximately 2,000 square kilometers around the area of the detection, for 15 days.

New for 2021, the right whale will need to be acoustically or visually detected in the area during days nine to 15 of the closure before an extension is triggered. In the Bay of Fundy and areas in the Roseway and Grand Manan basins, if a whale is detected again, a 15-day extension is triggered. In the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, if a whale is detected a second time, a season-long closure of the area will be implemented, effectively closing the area to fishing until 15 November, 2021.

Two flights with no detection of whales are required to reopen an area. If flights cannot be made, the area will remain closed until flights can safely take place.

Outside of the “dynamic zone,” closures will be on case-by-case basis, DFO said.

In addition to closures, DFO is requiring gear markings on all fixed-gear fisheries in Atlantic Canada and Quebec, with mandatory reporting for lost gear. Any contact between a marine mammal and fishing gear or a vessel must be reported.

The DFO is also allowing trials of “whale-safe” gear, including the authorization of ropeless gear in closed areas.

One change in 2021 is that rope weak-points will not need to be implemented by the end of the year. Previously, DFO was requiring harvesters to implement weak rope or breaking points by the end of 2021 – that deadline has been pushed back to 2022.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many harvesters were unable to conduct on-the-water tests for safe and effective ways to implement this requirement,” DFO said in a release.

Another new measure this year is the establishment of a new working group of industry, scientists, and department officials which will meet regularly to discuss ongoing issues regarding right whale fisheries management.

It isn’t just fisheries that have new restrictions related to right whales. The country enacted mandatory speed limits for commercial vessels in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Those limits include a mandatory speed restriction of 10 knots, established for 15 days when a right whale is detected in one of the dynamic shipping zones in the shipping lands north and south of Anticosti Island, and includes other speed limits in seasonal management areas and trial slowdowns in the Cabot Strait. Any vessels found violating those restrictions will be issued fines of up to CAD 250,000 (USD 198,000, EUR 163,000).

Those measures will be carried over into 2021, with a few additions. The mandatory restricted area “in and near the Shediac Valley” will be refined to better protect whales that are anticipated to be present in greater numbers in the summer months, and the speed-limit exemption in waters of less than 20 fathoms will be expanded to all commercial fishing vessels.

The measures were welcomed by conservation groups, but some are calling for greater efforts to protect the highly endangered species.

“Entanglement is a serious animal welfare issue, and it is clear that the North Atlantic right whale population cannot even sustain one single death or serious injury each year if the species is to survive,” Animal Welfare Institute Marine Animal Consultant Kate O’Connell said. “Both Canada and the United States must take the necessary actions to ensure that all human-caused threats to these whales are eliminated.”  

Image courtesy of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada

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