Conservation groups want U.S. to pressure Canada to protect right whales

HALIFAX — The U.S. government is being urged to pressure Canada to do more to protect the endangered North American right whale population in order to avoid a ban on various Canadian seafood products.

Nine U.S.-based organizations wrote to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday expressing "deep concern" over the ongoing entanglement of right whales in Canadian waters.

The letter highlights the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires a ban on the import of fish, crab and lobster caught with gear that results in the killing or serious injury of marine mammals "in excess of United States standards." The groups say current conservation measures in Canada are not comparable to those in U.S. fisheries, and improvements are needed to help avoid the species' extinction.

"We know that there is a major bycatch problem for right whales on both sides of the border, but there's definitely a problem in Canada," Sarah Uhlemann, program director of the Center for Biological Diversity in Seattle, Wash., said in an interview Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the first death of a right whale in U.S. waters was announced, while eight have died in Canadian waters this summer out of a population numbering only about 400 animals. Twenty-nine right whales have died in North American waters since 2017.

Uhlemann said there have been another four entanglements that have injured whales this year in the Gulf of St. Lawrence mainly due to the snow crab fishery.

"We are very worried that this level of entanglement is harming the population, is really contributing to its decline and could eventually cause its extinction," she said. "We are absolutely asking the Canadian government to do more in its fisheries, not only in the Gulf of St. Lawrence ... but really throughout the right whale's range."

Canada instituted measures following 12 right whale deaths in 2017, including altering shipping lanes and reducing vessel speeds, along with increased surveillance, fishery closures and dynamic or moving closures based on the sighting of right whales in a particular area.

The federal government said protecting the species is a shared responsibility and it continues to work closely with the U.S., including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to monitor right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and respond when necessary.

"Fisheries and Oceans Canada, along with Transport Canada, have implemented robust measures aimed at reducing the risk to North Atlantic right whales of entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with vessels," Robin Jahn, a media relations officer with Fisheries and Oceans Canada wrote in an email.

"Working together we have greatly increased monitoring and surveillance efforts to locate the whales and ensure compliance with our measures, and increased support for marine mammal response initiatives."

Uhlemann believes further measures that have been implemented in U.S. waters should be adopted.

They include the wider use of gear marking and of sinking lines that anchor lobster and crab traps closer to the ocean floor.

Kate O'Connell, a marine consultant with the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute, said the acceptance of conservation measures and closures in U.S. fisheries has been mostly positive, especially by fishermen in Massachusetts.

However, O'Connell noted that lobster fishermen in Maine, next to the world's largest lobster fishery off southwestern Nova Scotia, recently pulled out of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program aimed at reducing risks to the whales, saying the true culprits were ship strikes, gill nets and Canada's snow crab fishery.

"This is going to need a shared responsibility ... and we do need to keep the pressure up, otherwise we will see the loss of the right whale within the next 30 years," O'Connell said.

Sean Brillant, a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, said he's not surprised by the move by the U.S. conservation groups. He says you can't argue with the number of dead whales that have turned up in Canadian waters.

Still, he thinks Canada has lately made important moves to tackle the problem, and he doesn't completely buy that the U.S. measures hold the complete answer.

"More likely (the answer) will have to do with modifying gear," Brillant said. "Ropeless gear is one of the ideas .... but there's a lot of work to figure it out."

He believes it's likely Canada could face some kind of sanction because of the provisions of the U.S. law that are set to take effect in 2022.

"Canada is under a bit of a crunch to solve this problem, in order to protect these local fisheries," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2019.

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