In the federal government’s ever-increasing desire to protect the undoubtedly dwindling North Atlantic right whale population in this region, fish harvesters have had to sacrifice large portions of their seasons due to closures and make do with less-than-ideal whale-safe gear.
In lobster fishing area (LFA) 25, located between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, harvesters are currently feeling the pressure of what the Maritime Fishermen’s Union (MFU) deems to be arbitrarily large whale closure areas.
According to Martin Mallet, the executive director of MFU, area closures enacted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) sit around 2,000 square kilometres, which can bar off immense swaths of fishing ground from local harvesters. Beyond this, he suggested that these closures have no basis in the reality of the way whales travel in search of food in Atlantic Canada.
“We’ve been asking DFO, if there’s no whale pods there, why close the whole season off for several months when there’s no whales around? More and more science shows that in the first few weeks when the whales are within the gulf, they scatter around and look for food or whatever they do — they move a lot. But, at some point during the summer, they settle in some areas in particular,” said Mallet.
“What we’re seeing here is they’ve not settled anywhere close. Another thing is the observations that closed this quadrant were from whales that were in the quadrant just north of there, which was quite a length away from the actual LFA 25 area.”
To add to fish harvester’s frustrations, DFO’s newest solution to whale entanglements simply doesn’t work in the North Atlantic. By 2024, the government is expecting non-tended, fixed gear, trap and pot fisheries to adopt lower-breaking-strength gear throughout Atlantic Canada and Québec. These new lines are designed to break under 1,700 pounds of force. While a 150,000-pound North Atlantic right whale can make short work of these weaker fishing lines, they are just as susceptible to at-sea conditions.
“The issue is that if you get some traps that are caught on the bottom because of silting after a storm; when you start pulling on these ropes, they break,” said Mallet.
In the long term, DFO also hopes to make rope-on-command, also known as ropeless gear, work for the lobster and crab fisheries. These ropeless traps are deposited on the sea floor with no vertical line and buoy, and only surface via electronic command when it comes time to pull the traps. With no vertical line and buoy, the chance of whale entanglement is non-factor.
The viability of these traps has been called into question by the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation (CCFI), which recently trialled rope-on-command gear from Ashored Inc.
Among many technical concerns, the astronomical costs of adopting said gear came into question, with a single starter kit coming in at $9,500 and each additional unit costing another $2,500. With these traps coming in at a price tag far above your average $150–200 lobster trap, the CCFI’s Managing Director Keith Hutchings wonders who would pick up the tab should harvesters be forced to comply with any new whale-safe gear regulations.
“How do we integrate that in? Who pays for it? This [gear] is environmentally sustainable, so is there an obligation to support the harvesters in bringing this in from an environmental point of view? [Harvesters] were obviously concerned about the cost of that, because they’re putting one at each end of a string of pots. It’s not really conceivable that you’re going to have one for every pot,” said Hutchings.
Those in the fishing industry are obviously frustrated with the ever-moving goalpost that is DFO regulations.
So, what can be done to stay the long, controlling arm of a regulatory body? Look no further than our southern neighbours, where the Maine Lobstermen’s Association was able to take on the federal government and come out on top in a battle of right whale regulations.
Over the last few years, Maine lobstermen have been through a series of court battles to overturn a 2021 biological opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that saw strict regulations put in place, including reduced seasons and changes in fishing gear.
Not to be dissuaded by losses in lower courts, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association appealed their case to the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where the court ruled the NMFS went too far in their regulatory implementation.
The judges noted the NMFS, “overstepped its authority when it used worst-case scenarios and pessimistic assumptions in its crafting of its biological opinion, which required it to create new rules, which required lobster fishermen to switch to new gear. The result may be great physical and human capital destroyed and thousands of jobs lost, with all the degradation that attends such dislocations.”
Similar assumptions have led DFO to create new rules, resulting in similar destruction of physical and human capital. The question is, when will organizations take similar steps to our southern brethren and force DFO to strike a balance between helping whales and hurting harvesters?