While the Canadian Wildlife Federation approves of the measures taken so far by the federal government to prevent the deaths of North Atlantic Right Whales, the group maintains they don’t go far enough.

A total of 10 endangered Right Whales have died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence over the past two months. In response, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc shut down the snow crab fishery early and Transportation Minister Marc Garneau implemented a temporary mandatory speed limit for vessels of 20 metres or more in length. Speed must be reduced to a maximum of 10 knots when travelling in the western Gulf, from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island. Violators will be faced with a fine of up to $25,000.

“The Canadian Wildlife Federation is pleased to see the minister express his deep concern over this troubling situation,” says Sean Brillant, CWF senior marine conservation biologist. “However, the work needed can’t be accomplished by government alone and it’s encouraging to hear the minister’s commitment to working with conservation organizations, scientific experts and industry to address threats and seek both immediate and long-term solutions.”

The CWF is the leading research organization on Right Whale mortality in Canada and the coordinating agency for the Canadian Marine Animal Response Alliance, representing all of Canada’s marine animal response specialists.

“Right Whales are our ‘canaries in the coal mine’. These are the only whales that float immediately after they’re killed,” Brillant says. “Right Whales happen to be a species that’s highly focused on and they have extremely high protection under the Species at Risk Act, but there are other whale species in the Gulf, including blue whales, humpbacks, fin whales and belugas, that are likely being affected as well.”

Brillant says the most effective step to preserving the North Atlantic Right Whales would be to close all fisheries in Grand Manan Basin, Roseway Basin and other high-use areas during the summer months. Brillant is also calling for new fisheries management rules in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

The federation maintains restricting fishing in the Grand Manan and Roseway basins from July through October could achieve a 38 per cent risk reduction to Right Whales from Canadian fishing gear. Meanwhile, restricting groundfish longline fishing from the two basins from July through October would achieve a 35 per cent reduction in risk to Right Whales from Canadian fishing gear.

“The groundfish fishery contributes the greatest proportion (86 per cent) of annual entanglement risk in Canada. Groundfish in these basins include cod, haddock, hake and flounder,” Brillant says.

Bobby Jenkins, president of the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association, says this is the first time he’s heard such a suggestion. Jenkins says his organization has decided not to make any comment on the death of the Right Whales until all of the toxicology results are completed.

“We want to know for sure what we’re dealing with,” he says.

Brillant also recommends establishing and operating an early-warning system for the commercial shipping industry on both coasts to alert them of at-risk whales in their shipping lanes.

“This will allow the shipping industry to reduce speeds when whales are present, and to significantly reduce deaths from ship strikes,” he says. “This is vital for the conservation of marine mammals on both coasts, particularly in areas where there’s heavy or increasing shipping traffic.”

The endangered North Atlantic Right Whale population is currently estimated at about 522 animals. Brillant says almost all the risk to Right Whales from Canadian fishing gear occurs during July, August and September (12 per cent, 50 per cent and 37 per cent respectively).

“Investments in these areas would be insignificant compared to the values of the shipping industry and commercial fisheries industries in Canada,” says CWF’s CEO, Rick Bates. “We believe that decisions to support these actions would be positively received by industry, conservation organizations and others concerned with the survival of marine wildlife and the sustainable management of our ocean industries.”