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Canada Federal government to curtail snow crab fishery to protect endangered right whales

In this 2009 file photo, a female right whale swims at the surface of the water with her calf a few miles off the Georgia coast.

John Carrington/The Associated Press

The federal government is taking action to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale by imposing new rules on the snow crab industry, creating worry among fishermen about how it might affect their livelihoods.

Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Dominic LeBlanc announced that the government will be shutting the snow crab fishery early in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and pledging to temporarily close other snow crab fishing zones if a right whale is spotted in the area.

“Following a devastating summer in 2017 and a worrying breeding season where no new calves were sighted this winter, we need to do everything we can to help ensure the survival of the species,” Mr. LeBlanc said.

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The measures are the strongest move the federal government has made since the alarming discovery last summer of 12 dead right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a rich fishing and shipping area.

An additional six right whale carcasses were also discovered in U.S. waters over the past year, bringing the cross-border death toll to 4 per cent.

The right whale is considered critically endangered with just 450 left in the world. Adding to the issue is that only 100 are breeding females and scientists say if last year’s death toll continues, the species is two decades from extinction.

Fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes are believed to be the primary causes of death. Previously, the Canadian government had imposed rules on the snow crab fishery to reduce the amount of fishing rope in the water, mark gear and report lost gear.

Historically, the right whales would congregate in Canadian waters in the Bay of Fundy in spring and summer to feed on zooplankton, but scientists believe climate change and the warming ocean are affecting their food supply and this may be why they’re showing up to graze in large numbers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Last year, scientists recorded one-quarter of the right whale population in the Gulf.

The government’s latest measures include closing a section of the snow crab fishery in the southern Gulf on April 28 − almost 2½ months earlier than normal – and removing all fishing gear from the water by June 30. Other snow crab fisheries can be shuttered for at least 15 days if a right whale is spotted in the area.

To make up for these restrictions, the government is hoping to open the snow crab season earlier with the help of Coast Guard cutters to break the ice, but Carl Allen, president of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, said weather may hinder an earlier start.

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“Everybody has hopes that the season is going to be open by April 15, but there’s no guarantee. It’s really put a lot of people on edge,” he said.

Mr. Allen added that the earlier closing caught snow crab fishermen off guard, causing worries about not meeting quotas.

“That’s the part that nobody wants to happen,” he said. “Everybody wants to get their crab out of the water. Everybody is going to work their hardest to get it out of the water as fast as possible.”

Robert Haché, director-general of the Acadian Crabbers Association, said the closing could possibly create an increased risk of right whale entanglements, by forcing fishermen to place all of their snow crab traps in a smaller space along the border of the closing, concentrating the amount of rope in the water.

“It will create tremendous chaos among the fishermen on the fishing ground who will fear the possibility of not being able to catch their quotas,” said Mr. Haché.

Minister LeBlanc said he believes the snow crab fishery in the southern Gulf, which landed $462-million last year, can go ahead despite the new measures.

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“This year I hope will tell us we can have both,” he said. “That’s certainly our plan, but we’ll continue to talk to industry and the provinces.”

Wednesday’s announcement also included plans to reduce the number of snow crab traps in the water and expand aerial and at-sea surveillance of right whales. The ban on disentangling right whales was also lifted and the government announced $1-million annually to support marine-mammal response groups.

New temporary speed limits for ships longer than 20 metres were also reintroduced from April 28 to Nov. 15, when the mammals are expected to be in the area.

Conservationists were encouraged by these latest protection measures and say they’re a good first step, but also cautioned that they don’t reduce the risk to zero.

“The Gulf of St. Lawrence is a big area and it’s a tall order to expect planes and acoustic gliders to cover everywhere all of the time, to let you know where all of the whales are,” said Mark Baumgartner, a right whale biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

“But it remains to be seen how effective these will be. If we see the number of mortalities or entanglements go down in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year and in following years, then we’ll have more confidence that this is the right approach.”

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Twelve right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017 and scientist did necropsies to find out why. The 2017 deaths prompted Ottawa to implement a number of measures to help prevent further whale deaths but recently some of the measures were eased.
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