Ottawa will order boats to give right whales a 100-metre buffer zone as it looks at a variety of options to protect the endangered mammals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, says Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc.
LeBlanc met Thursday in Moncton, N.B., with scientists, aboriginal groups and representatives from the fishing and marine transport industries to discuss possible solutions after a deadly summer.
LeBlanc emerged from the meeting, saying there were many good suggestions.
"From fishing gear changes to sharing data and real time information, to looking at ways to have more reliable surveillance that will allow, for example, certain shipping corridors or certain speed limits in different areas to reflect better data. I was quite inspired and encouraged by the suggestions."
Twelve right whales have turned up dead in Canadian waters this year, and another four died in American waters.
"Scientific research can and must necessarily take some time, and in the case of protecting the North Atlantic right whales, time is not necessarily on our side," LeBlanc told the conference during his opening remarks.
LeBlanc said he will soon be releasing new marine mammal regulations that will include a buffer zone.
"I intend to include in the updated regulations a requirement for a 100-metre buffer between vessels and most marine mammals, including obviously the North Atlantic right whale," he said.
Many of the whales died as a result of blunt force trauma after being struck by boats, while other deaths have been attributed to fishing gear entanglements.
LeBlanc said future solutions could include new fishing gear that uses less rope, or rope that could be easily broken by whales.
"I want to understand how ready is this technology to be used," he said. "We're open very much to technology and innovation as part of the solution."
Ottawa has taken steps to reduce the risk by reducing the speed limit in the Gulf – which has led some cruise ships to cancel visits, and prompted at least one shipping line to hike rates – and shutting down a snow crab fishery.
LeBlanc has said the government will look at every option possible to protect whales, including making the speed limit permanent, enacting new regulations on fishing gear, and changing crab fishing season dates to ensure equipment is removed before the whales migrate into the Gulf.
He said everyone understands that changes must come quickly.
"The fishing industry said for example some of the gear we may ask them to change will be under the snow in the next few weeks. The cruise ship industry and the tourism industry said some of the programs that cruise companies are setting must be done in the next few months," the minister said.
Rene Trepanier, executive director of Cruise the Saint Lawrence, said the cruise industry suffered as a result of speed limits imposed mid season.
He said the port of Gaspe had 16 cancellations – representing 60 per cent of their cruise season – and he expects the same impact next year.
However Trepanier said while the industry will hurt in the short term, they want to help reduce the number of whale deaths, and may be able to find a positive for the long term.
"Whales are a great tourism product. We want to turn it into an advantage," he said.
The biggest impact of new regulations will likely be on fishermen. Martin Noel, who represents crab fishermen in northern New Brunswick, said they'll probably have to reduce the number of crab pots and the amount of rope used.
He said pots are lost every year and the Fisheries Department could help to retrieve them – removing a hazard for whales.
Noel also said the federal government could assist them by allowing the crab fishery to start earlier.
"If we could get ice breakers in to open the ports and allow the crabbers to start their season earlier next year. That would help," he said.
LeBlanc wouldn't say exactly how much money his department was ready to spend to protect the whales, but did say they have hundreds of millions of dollars they didn't have just a few years ago.
There are roughly 450 right whales left in the world, and Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society said that number is declining.
"Probably the more alarming component of that is very few of those are females that are breeding and we are losing them faster than we lose anyone else in the population. If they keep going with the number of deaths of these adult females, we're going to lose them within 20 to 25 years. If you lose all your breeding females, your population is done," she said.
Hundreds gathered in Halifax last month for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium's annual meeting, where the deaths were described as a dire blow to the endangered species' survival.