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There are estimated to be only 400 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. (File Photo).Michael Dwyer/The Associated Press

Efforts were under way Tuesday to find and possibly rescue three North Atlantic right whales spotted entangled in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a day after the Canadian government announced new measures to protect the animals.

Late Monday, Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada released a statement outlining further steps the government will take to respond to recent reports of three whales seen entangled last week east of Miscou, N.B., and the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec.

“Our team will be on a boat and they’re basically on standby to respond,” Moira Brown, a research scientist for the Canadian Whale Institute (CWI), said Tuesday. “There’s quite a few right whales up there, so it’s going to be a big effort to try and locate the entangled whales."

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team, which is run through CWI, expected to get out onto the water to search for the whales and possibly try to disentangle them. The group was working in tandem with the government’s aerial search efforts, which also increased as part of the recent changes. It is estimated that there are only 400 of the endangered species left in the world, and six of them died in Canadian waters this year, all in June.

But disentanglement is both difficult and dangerous. Rescue teams travel on nine-metre-long inflatable vessels to try to get close enough to the whales to cut the ropes with knives attached to long poles. But with the animals moving, and possible wind and rough seas, Ms. Brown said it takes a lot of time and effort.

“It would be like your dentist trying to do a root canal while you’re running down the street,” she said.

In 2017, when 12 right whales died in Canada, the federal government paused efforts to rescue entangled whales after rescuer Joe Howlett died.

The International Whaling Commission, a global whale conservation body based in Cambridge, Britain, established a Global Whale Entanglement Response Network in 2011, which has brought together experts from around the world to determine best practices for disentanglement. Canada has participated in the network’s workshops, according to the commission’s communications officer, Kate Wilson, who added that the network has trained 1,200 people from 35 countries on disentanglement.

The initiative’s long-term goal is to find ways to prevent entanglement, for example, through new fishing technologies, and is currently collecting international data on global species which are struck by ships and entangled.

Out of the three entangled whales, the two seen east of Miscou have been identified as males which were both born in 2014, according to data from the New England Aquarium in Boston. The third whale, which was spotted east of the Gaspé Peninsula, has yet to be identified.

The whales were in areas already closed to fishing activities and the circumstances of the entanglements remain unclear, according to Marie-Pascale Des Rosiers, the director of communications for the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

“We don’t know how long they’ve been entangled,” she said, noting that it’s possible the whales entered Canadian waters after becoming entangled. “We’re doing everything we can.”

Besides increased aerial surveillance, the new government measures include allocating funding for programs that help marine mammals, as well as for projects supporting the North Atlantic right whale specifically. Effective as of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, an expansion further east was ordered for the zone where vessels must slow down to 10 knots throughout the season. The speed limit applies to any vessel at least 13 metres long, in place of the previous minimum of 20 metres.

Also new is that if a single right whale is seen anywhere in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, fisheries with unsupervised fishing gear will closed for 15 days.

“It was a really good thing for the Government of Canada to put this in place," Ms. Brown said. "The [right whale] population just can’t sustain that level of mortality.”

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