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Canada Unveils New Fishing Regulations to Protect Right Whales

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 594-1759
Photo of a North Atlantic right whale and dolphins taken on March 7, 2009.

The Canadian government has unveiled new regulations to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

To help prevent entanglements with fishing gear, Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced in a press release that it will implement new season-long fishing closures in parts of the Gulf of St. Lawrence where right whales are aggregating between the months of April and November. 

The department will also impose new gear marking requirements, expand temporary fishing closures in the Bay of Fundy, and develop new gear modifications standards in 2021. In the coming year, the Department is also “authorizing ropeless fishing gear trials in closed areas.”

Sean Hayes, the protected species branch chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Woods Hole, was cautiously optimistic about the Canadian plans.

“I applaud them for their efforts,” he said in a phone interview shortly after the announcement, “but would want to take a close look at what the serious measures are before having a final sense of how effective they [may be].”  

To prevent ship strikes, or collisions between boats and whales, Transport Canada will also re-implement the mandatory speed limit to 10 knots in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence and only allow boats to travel in parts of the shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island when no North Atlantic right whales are spotted in the area during aerial surveys.

Many prominent measures to save the critically endangered species have been made by the U.S. government in recent years, but this move, Hayes says, demonstrates great effort on the part of Canadian officials.    

“They are trying really hard,” Hayes said, “and, you know, we’re still obviously having our own management challenges in the U.S. to get it right, or the species wouldn’t be in trouble.”

The population of North Atlantic right whales has dropped to approximately 400. Though ten calves have been spotted this year, conservationists say that number needs to be closer to 30 to meaningfully reduce the species’ chance of extinction.

These regulations come after years of the U.S. lobster industry complaining it's being penalized for Canadian mismanagement of fisheries.  

Arthur Sawyer, President of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association was happy to hear of the new regulations, but not quite ready to celebrate.    

“Well they’re doing something,” he said. “Better than what they had been doing.”

In Cape Cod Bay, a three-month fishing closure is already underway to protect the marine mammals during their winter feeding season. From Feb. 1 to April 30, no trap/pot gear or vertical lines are allowed in an area of over 3,000 square miles.

To avoid economic hardship for its fishermen, Canada plans to open some harbors early to help snow crab fisheries begin work before the right whales arrive in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in spring 2020.

“Most of those [Canadian] measures right off the top sound like they have the potential to be very good,” Hayes said. But he added, “As they always say, the devil is in the details.”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.