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Whale Worries are Top of Mind

The lobster season is now well underway in this region and from all accounts, everything looks positive, especially the all-important price per pound.

However, if you head south, crossing the border into the Gulf of Maine, there is much more worry, anxiety and uncertainty and it’s all related to whales, North Atlantic right whales to be specific.

According to the Portland Press Herald, on December 3, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request to lift fishing restrictions in the Gulf of Maine aimed at protecting right whales, leaving Maine lobster harvesters unsure of what options, legal or otherwise, they have left to draw on.

The Maine Lobstering Union had filed an emergency application on November 24 asking the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate a lower court ruling and reopen a roughly 950-square-mile area of the Gulf of Maine. The area is scheduled to be closed through January — and every subsequent October through January — in an effort to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Members of the lobster industry in Maine have been battling with conservation groups over the restrictions for months. In a legal complaint in U.S. District Court in October, the union and other industry businesses argued that the National Marine Fisheries Service did not use the best available information when it created the new rules, which are intended to reduce the risk to the whales by at least 60 per cent, the Portland Press Herald reported.

While this drama unfolds south of the border, lobster harvesters here are obviously watching what is playing out in Maine and wondering if such restrictions could ever be implemented off southwest Nova Scotia. But for now, so far, so good as the whales have stayed away, preferring the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

For the second year in a row, there have been no reported deaths of North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters. However, with recent estimates that only 336 North Atlantic right whales remain in the world, the Government of Canada recently said that it continues to work with scientific experts, industry, Indigenous and non-Indigenous harvesters, environmental groups and the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to protect and support the recovery of this species.  

In 2021, the Government of Canada took the following measures related to right whales:

To help protect the whales from entanglements in fishing gear, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) adjusted the times of fishing seasons and continued to implement seasonal and temporary fishing area closures when and where whales were detected. In 2021, approximately 38,325 square kilometres (an area almost seven times the size of Prince Edward Island) were closed to fishing based on right whale detections. In this overall total, 26,764 square kilometres were closed for the season.

To help protect the whales from collisions with vessels in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Transport Canada continued to implement vessel traffic management measures, including speed restrictions and a restricted access area, that covered approximately 72,000 square kilometres. These measures aimed to reduce collision risks to the whales from vessel traffic over the course of the season, without jeopardizing the safety and security of mariners. This year, there was an over 99.9 per cent compliance rate with the mandatory vessel traffic measures.

DFO said that fishery officers will continue to watch for North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters throughout the year through aerial surveillance. Given recent detections of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Transport Canada is asking mariners to remain vigilant and to continue, voluntarily, to maintain a maximum speed of 10 knots over ground whenever safe to do so.

In 2021, DFO reported that at least 120 individual North Atlantic right whales were identified in Canadian waters, representing approximately one third of the estimated global population.

So, what will 2022 hold for North Atlantic right whale protection measures in Canadian waters? Hard to say right now, but you can be assured that DFO is closely watching what is currently playing out in Maine and that it won’t be rolling back any of the right whale-related protection measures back this year.

Also, expect DFO to ramp up its $20-million Whalesafe Gear Adoption Fund, aimed at transitioning fishermen to whale-safe gear by 2023. This gear transition is not going to be an easy task for either DFO or harvesters, but compared to what is going on in Maine right now, it is all relative.

For now, things are going well here, the future is bright and for that we should be thankful.

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