HomeOpinionGovernment Softens 2019 Whale Protection Measures

Government Softens 2019 Whale Protection Measures

The fact that 2019 is a federal election year is not lost on anyone.

The governing Liberals would certainly like to hang on to their electoral riding monopoly in Atlantic Canada and they know how important fishermen’s votes are. This was probably a contributing factor in the recently announced North Atlantic right whale protection measures.

The issue of right whale entanglements has been a very contentious issue in the fishery of late, leading to delays and suspensions of numerous fisheries in Atlantic Canada last year. Many fishermen and industry stakeholders called the 2018 Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) whale protection measures severe and even heavy-handed. However, many speculated that following a pan-Atlantic roundtable in Dartmouth with industry in October 2018, DFO might lean to more of a compromise position for 2019 and that appears to be just the case.

On Feb. 7, DFO Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced a plan aimed at protecting the endangered North Atlantic right whale during the 2019 season, while “sustaining and growing the ocean economy that so many Eastern Canadians rely on.”

To reduce the probability of vessel strikes, the government is:

  • Re-introducing a mandatory speed restriction for vessels 20 metres or longer to a maximum of 10 knots when travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence starting on April 28.
  • Continuing to allow vessels to travel at safe operational speeds in parts of two shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island when no North Atlantic right whales are spotted in the area.
  • Adjusting the areas where the mandatory speed restriction applies to reflect North Atlantic right whale sightings to minimize impacts on the cruise ship industry and on community resupply.

To address the possibility of entanglements in fishing gear, the government is:

  • Adjusting the area closed to snow crab, lobster fisheries and all other non-tended fixed-gear fisheries in Atlantic Canada and Quebec to include the area where 90 per cent of the North Atlantic right whales were sighted last year during the prime fishing season. This area is a little less than half the size it was in 2018 and is more elongated north-to-south than in 2018.
  • Keeping the overall protection area the same in terms of the combined season-long closure area and the area where temporary 15-day closures may occur for snow crab, lobster fisheries and all other non-tended fixed-gear fisheries following a sighting of one or more right whales.
  • Adjusting the protocol for temporary closures to include provisions for sightings of right whales in shallow waters less than 20 fathoms (approximately 36.5-metres deep). A 15-day closure will be triggered in waters less than 20 fathoms only if one or more right whales are spotted in shallow waters.

The minister also said that DFO will continue to support industry trials of innovative fishing technologies and methods to prevent and mitigate whale entanglement. He added that DFO will host a gear innovation summit later this year, which will focus on technological solutions to reduce risk to whales as well as solutions to reduce or eliminate ghost gear.

Fishermen in this region are already being proactive when it comes to exploring viable, ropeless fishing gear options. An example is the pilot project being undertaken by lobster fishermen on New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island.

Among the steps of that pilot project is a requirement for fishermen to cut the trailing buoy upon sighting a right whale to reduce rope in the water.

The president of the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association, Brian Guptill, told the October roundtable group that he hopes the pilot will avert what happened in June when a single right whale transiting their fishing area led to an automatic 15-day shutdown.

“Long before the closure ever went in place, that whale was gone. It is a knee-jerk reaction set in motion because of events that happened the year before in the Gulf. It was millions of dollars, it had serious consequences,” Guptill explained.

Despite the reasons being given, election-related or otherwise, DFO has softened its previous iron-fisted and damaging whale protection measures for 2019. While these reduced regulations should improve the plight of fishermen, all eyes will once again be on the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Bay of Fundy this year. Let’s hope the combination of cooperation and compromise between regulators and fishermen will lead to a more successful outcome for all this year — including the whales.