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The federal government will announce further measures in the coming weeks to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale, Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said.

Michael Dwyer/The Associated Press

Further measures are coming to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale in Canadian waters, federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan told a meeting on fishing gear innovation Tuesday.

Jordan wouldn’t provide details during a short speech in Halifax, but she said the new steps would be unveiled in the coming weeks.

“One of the biggest challenges we face today is figuring out how to continue to have a lucrative fishing industry while also protecting our ocean and the life it sustains,” she told a gathering of more than 250 harvesters and fishing gear manufacturers from Canada, the United States, Iceland and Norway.

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“As you know the North Atlantic right whale is endangered, and it’s our shared responsibility to keep them safe.”

Canada has already taken such steps as lowering vessel speeds and altering fishing seasons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Jordan said fishing gear marked to identify such things as the country, region and fishery in which it is used will be introduced this year.

“If the whales happen to get entangled during the northern migration, Canada and the U.S. can clearly tell where the entanglement occurred,” she said. “Those changes will be put into action this season.”

Jordan stressed that Canada’s trade relationships depend on “us doing our part to protect the ocean.”

The North Atlantic right whale population currently stands at about 400 animals, with fewer than 100 breeding females. Jordan told the meeting that nine new calves were born this winter, two more than last year and the highest birth rate since 2016.

Since 2017, at least 29 North Atlantic right whales have died in U.S. and Canadian waters, most of them killed by entanglements with fishing gear and collisions with ships.

Rob Martin, a commercial fisherman with 40 years of experience in the lobster and scallop fishery off Massachusetts, told the summit that he’s been testing breakaway rope as part of research with the New England Aquarium in Boston.

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Martin said plastic sleeves inserted over cuts made at various intervals along ropes are designed to break at just over 771 kilograms of force – the amount generally required for large entangled whales to free themselves from gear.

He said the biggest concern was how much load the altered rope could haul in lifting traps in different sea conditions, but the tests showed the rope has potential. “Nothing is 100 per cent, but I think it’s a good start if it saves one whale,” Martin said.

Amy Knowlton, a leading right whale research scientist with the New England Aquarium, said the ropes with plastic sleeves were tested against control ropes of 1,800-kilogram strength.

“What we found was there was actually very little difference in the breakage between control ropes and sleeved ropes,” she said, adding that when the ropes broke it was not during the hauling of gear.

Philippe Cormier, president of New Brunswick-based Corbo Engineering, is working on 15 initiatives in the Atlantic fishery, including tracking and monitoring right whales and testing breakaway gear.

“There’s an urgent need for short-term solutions before we can implement a 100 per cent ropeless fishery,” Cormier said.

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He said testing of the so-called “weak rope” with a breaking strength of 771 kilograms was carried out last year in the snow crab fishery, which typically uses rope with a breaking strength of between 4,500 and 6,300 kilograms.

Cormier said it generally took longer to haul traps with the 12.7-millimetre diameter rope and its hydraulic gear, but it was possible using lower tensions in both normal and rough weather.

He said it remains to be seen whether fishermen will be allowed to harvest crab using weaker ropes in areas where whales are present and whether the fishermen will be willing to use the ropes.

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