Ottawa will bring "absolutely every protection to bear" to protect and bolster right whales following 10 deaths in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since early June, says federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc.
LeBlanc told a Moncton, N.B., briefing Thursday that Canadians have been moved by the deaths, and scientists are studying all potential measures.
"The Government of Canada will bring all of the resources necessary," he said.
LeBlanc recounted seeing 15 to 20 right whales Thursday morning while flying over an area east of Miscou Island in New Brunswick: "It was an absolutely majestic sight and a privilege for me to see these majestic creatures in a habitat for them that is relatively new."
He said it's believed 80 to 100 right whales are currently in the gulf and scientists believe similar numbers will be there next year as they search for plankton to feed on.
The Fisheries Department has already taken steps to prevent further deaths, including shortening the snow crab season and asking fishermen in the gulf to report any whale sightings.
LeBlanc said mariners have been asked to take voluntary measures such as slowing to 10 knots.
LeBlanc said he's concerned the whale deaths could hurt the reputation of the Canadian fishing industry, so the department and fishermen are eager to protect the whales. He noted the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act imposes a burden on trading partners.
"If a country doesn't take its responsibilities, then one of the potential remedies is a restriction in the U.S. market. Canada is, and will take, every possible measure to ensure we're doing what the world expects of us and what Canadians expect of us to protect these species."
LeBlanc said fishermen can also do things like limiting the amount of rope they have on the water.
"If you put your crab trap in 200 feet of water, maybe you don't need 350 feet of rope because 150 feet of that will be floating across the surface," he said.
Collisions with ships and fishing gear entanglements are major threats for the whales.
Joe Howlett, a 59-year-old veteran fisherman from Campobello, N.B., was killed last month while freeing a whale that had become entangled in ropes.
The incident prompted Canada and the United States to temporarily suspend efforts to rescue entangled whales.
LeBlanc said Transport Canada is investigating, and he expects a report to be made public before any decision is made on how to conduct such rescues in the future.
Meanwhile, a final report on the necropsies of several whales is not expected until mid-September, and LeBlanc said that will inform final decisions on how to protect them.
He said he expects to convene a symposium to finalize the choices.
LeBlanc said he and Transport Minister Marc Garneau will look at all options, including a possible adjustment to shipping routes.
"We've asked the industry to voluntarily undertake some mitigation measures, but the Canada Shipping Act and other regulatory instruments offer us other options, but we want to do this in partnership with the industry," LeBlanc said.
It's estimated there are only about 500 North Atlantic right whales still living, and Jerry Conway of the Canadian Whale Institute in Campobello said the losses are disastrous for an already vulnerable species.
"This has had catastrophic ramifications on the right whale population, this number of whales being killed when we only know of three calves being born this year," he said.
Megan Leslie, a former New Democrat MP who is now vice-president, oceans, with WWF-Canada, said LeBlanc and his officials should be applauded for their quick response to the whale deaths.
But Leslie said the government must also look to the long-term by providing greater protected areas for marine life. She's concerned the government may allow greater oil and gas exploration in the area where some of the dead whales have been spotted.
"If we're allowing oil and gas exploration in that area, we will see more noise and increased traffic. I don't see how they can square that circle of marine protection if we're going to allow more marine traffic in that area," she said.
Tonya Wimmer, a director with the Marine Animal Response Society, said responding to so many dead whales in such a short period of time has been very depressing for her and others who study the whales.
But she said she's impressed by the willingness of government, mariners, fishermen and scientists to quickly come together with the goal of protecting the massive mammals, which can reach 18 metres in length and live at least 75 years.
"With everyone working together, let's hope some positive news can come out of this," she said.