Op-ed: Canada’s commitment to North Atlantic right whales

A right whale mother and calf swimming.

Geoff Irvine is executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada, and Nat Richard is the executive director of the Lobster Processors Association.

Since 2017, many of us in the Canadian lobster industry feel like we’ve been trapped in a South Park episode. There has been a steady drumbeat eager to blame Canada for the plight of North Atlantic right whales (NARWs). The unfair red-listing by Seafood Watch just adds fuel to the fire.

Right whales were rarely observed in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence until recently. Historically, they never ventured much beyond their northernmost habitats in the Bay of Fundy and the Roseway Basin area, in the offshore south of Nova Scotia, during the summer and fall, before moving to their traditional winter calving grounds in the southeastern United States. All that changed in 2017, when a large number unexpectedly moved to the gulf. Tragically, we lost 17 right whales: 12 in Canadian waters and five in the United States. Two deaths out of 12 Canadian whale fatalities were found to be caused by crab-gear entanglements. New protection measures the following year resulted in zero deaths in 2018. None of eight verified deaths in 2019 were linked to Canadian fisheries and no mortalities were recorded in 2020. There has no NARW mortality – from any cause – since 2019 [Editor’s note: A right whale known as “Snow Cone” is expected to die after being found entangled in fishing gear off the coast of the U.S. state of Massachusetts on 26 September, and its calf has not been seen in months].

NOAA’s data confirms that only two deaths out of 21 documented in Canadian waters since 2017 were linked to fishing gear – neither linked to lobster gear. Most of the mortality – when a cause could be determined – was linked to deadly ship strikes by ocean freighters and cruise ships.

It is a plain fact that there has never been a single, documented right whale death linked to Canadian lobster gear in recent history. There are several reasons why lobster fishing presents a lower risk in Canada. It’s an inshore fishery conducted mostly in shallow waters of less than 20 fathoms, where right whales are rarely observed.

Our lobster fisheries are also managed differently. One key difference is that Canada’s Gulf of Saint Larwence lobster season between May and June is fixed at 60 days. Therefore, there is limited overlap with times of year when NARWs are most-concentrated in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, from July to September. Another crucial difference is that our harvesters have an average trap limit of 300 per boat, compared with 800 in New England.

Our American peers have made huge strides and sacrifices in recent years to protect right whales and we commend them for their efforts. Canada has also been leading the way with the most aggressive management measures in the world. They are adapted annually (and in-season) based on the best science and the evolving distribution of NARWs in our waters.

Moira Brown, a senior scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute who has studied right whales for almost 40 years, recently stated that Canadian right whale measures were “unmatched in eastern North America.”

Canada’s lobster fisheries continue to maintain its third-party Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. It was renewed in February 2021 and includes a rigorous annual analysis of the impact of our fishery on marine mammals, including NARWs.

Canadian snow crab harvesters have stepped up in a major way since the 2017 crisis. In 2022, many are trialing ropeless gear units under special permits to harvest in closed areas, in what is the largest R&D trial in North America.

Much has been said about NOAA’s decision to make a 950-square-mile area of the Gulf of Maine essentially off-limits to fishing from October to January. Consider that in 2021, Canada closed more than 29,000 square miles of ocean either temporarily or for the whole season based on actual sightings or detections of right whales. While disruptive and costly, these targeted and adaptive closure protocols, widely supported by our fishermen, have closed massive areas to fishing whenever NARWs are present.

Since its 2020 launch, our Ghost Gear program has removed 7,560 units of lost gear and 155 kilometers of rope, thereby reducing threats to marine mammals. Canada is also working with harvesters to implement low-breaking strength rope or links to facilitate whales’ self-release in the unlikely event that entanglements should occur.

Canada has spared no effort to protect right whales since 2017. We implemented a broad suite of measures, including comprehensive closure protocols, mandatory speed restrictions for fishing and large vessels, unprecedented de-icing resources to allow for early crab fishing before NARWs arrive, massive aerial and at-sea surveillance with cutting-edge detection technology, elimination of all floating horizontal lines, “trawling” up to reduce vertical lines, 100 percent gear marking for all fixed gear fisheries, among others. The fact that not a single NARW mortality has occurred for the past three years speaks volumes about their effectiveness.

For more than 150 years, North America’s lobster fishery has proven itself to be one of the most-sustainable wild fisheries on the planet. For all of us, on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, who care deeply about its future, the path forward is clear.

First, let’s remember that lobster in North America is a highly integrated, multibillion-dollar industry. We are each other’s largest export market.  Tens of thousands of fishing families, plant workers, and hundreds of coastal communities depend on us setting the record straight and winning this fight.

Second, we need to stand up and push back on what Seafood Watch represents: activism masquerading as science. They lumped all fixed-gear fisheries into one basket with blatant disregard for the facts and lacking peer-review validation. Canada and the United States have a proud record of global leadership on seafood sustainability. Cooler heads must prevail.  We need more science, and less politics; more bi-national collaboration, less finger-pointing. Ensuring a sustainable future for the right whale – and addressing the threats facing them –  knows no borders and needs to be addressed bi-nationally.

Photo courtesy of comolok/Shutterstock


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500