Ottawa imposes new rules to protect fragile right whale population

New rules on right whales

Canada has rolled out new measures to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, but federal officials insisted Thursday the rules won't lead to more fishing closures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence or the Bay of Fundy.

The changes are needed because the whales' migration patterns in Canadian waters have become difficult to predict, Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan told a news conference on Parliament Hill.

"It's extremely important that we look after the North Atlantic right whale (because) it's an endangered species, partly due to human activity," Jordan said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"We recognize that putting measures in place are going to be critical to maintaining that species."

Jordan said the new rules, which build on changes made since 2017, are aimed at reducing the main causes for the whales' population decline: ship strikes and entanglements with fishing gear.

Since June 2017, an unusually large number of right whales have died, reducing the population in the North Atlantic to about 400 animals and prompting warnings that the species is on its way to extinction.

In 2017, a total of 17 dead whales were found, 12 of them in Canadian waters. The following year, three dead whales were found in U.S. waters, and in 2019, nine dead whales were spotted in Canadian waters, and one in the United States.

That's a total of 30 dead whales in the past three years — 21 in Canada and nine in the United States.

To prevent entanglements, Fisheries and Oceans Canada will use a new, dynamic system for fishing closures when whales are spotted or heard in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy.

Unlike the static, season-long closures imposed in the past, fisheries officials will now declare closures in areas where whales are detected more than once in 15 days. Those areas, which will each measure 2,000 square kilometres, will remain closed to fishing until Nov. 15.

"What we're doing is actually tracking where the whales are, and then we will close it almost in a grid around the whale as it moves, so that we're not closing off a full area," Jordan said.

"That's something that's going to be extremely important to our fish harvesters because they have more ability to know where things are going to be, instead of closing off one big area."

Once an area is closed, fishermen must remove all of their fixed fishing gear, such as lobster and crab traps.

As well, the department confirmed Thursday it will expand the use of this type of closure into the Bay of Fundy, in response to a larger number of right whales returning to the bay last year.

Another new measure calls for improved gear-marking. Lobster and crab fishermen will be required to mark all of their ropes to show what fishery they are being used for and where. The new markings will help officials and marine mammal researchers determine where entanglements have taken place.

Meanwhile, Transport Canada says vessels longer than 13 metres will be required to comply with new rules to reduce ship strikes, including new speed limits for a vast area off northeastern New Brunswick and south of Anticosti Island.

A new voluntary speed limit of 10 knots will be imposed in the Cabot Strait between April 28 and June 15, though it remains unclear how this rule will affect the ferry service that links Nova Scotia with Newfoundland. The voluntary limit will resume between Oct. 1 to Nov. 15 as the whales move out of the gulf.

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