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All options to protect right whales 'on the table,' says Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc

August 3, 2017 4:51 PM
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All options to protect right whales 'on the table,' says Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc

Death toll of endangered North Atlantic whales in Gulf of St. Lawrence has climbed to 10 since June

The federal government will bring "absolutely every protection to bear" to prevent any further deaths of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc pledged on Thursday.

His department is working closely with Transport Canada to address the "serious and troubling situation" and will provide whatever resources are necessary to protect the endangered species as well as the people who work near the whales, he said during a news conference in Moncton.

"Every option to protect right whales is on the table," he said, citing changes to shipping lanes, aerial surveillance or changes to fishing gear as being among the possibilities.

He plans to convene a symposium with representatives of the marine and fishing industries to discuss and finalize the options, he said.

Ten right whales have died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since June 7 — four of them washing up on the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador in the past week alone.

Preliminary necropsy reports suggest ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement are possible causes.

At least two other whales had to be freed from snow crab gear in recent weeks, including one saved by Joe Howlett, a 59-year-old fisherman from Campbobello Island, N.B., who was killed during the rescue near Shippagan on July 10.

​Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates there are only about 500 right whales left in the world, which means the deaths represent about two per cent of the global population. At least two of the dead whales were females.

Fisheries officials have said the number of North Atlantic right whales found dead this summer is concerning, given the global population of the endangered species is only about 500. (Gilbert Boyer)

Marine mammal experts have called on the federal government to take immediate steps to prevent further deaths.

LeBlanc said Thursday it's challenging, given the volume of shipping and marine traffic in the area. The Gulf of St. Lawrence connects central and Eastern Canada to international shipping markets.

Some of the best scientists in the world are working on the issue, said LeBlanc, 15 or 20 of them "almost full-time." He expects a report by mid-September, he said.

Earlier in the day, LeBlanc flew over Miscou Island in a helicopter with some of the scientists and saw about 15 right whales in the area, he said, calling it "an absolutely majestic sight."

LeBlanc estimated there are between 80 and 100 right whales currently in the gulf, which is two or three times higher than ever before.

Scientists have suggested climate change may have reduced their food supplies in other areas, forcing them into the gulf. It's too early to speculate whether the increased presence is permanent, said LeBlanc.

The Fisheries Department responded to the deaths of the whales and Howlett last month by shutting down two days early part of the snow crab fishery, which overlapped the area where the whales were found.

Other steps included asking mariners to voluntarily slow down along the Laurentian channel in shipping lanes between the Magdalen Islands and the Gaspé Peninsula until Sept. 30, and asking all commercial fishermen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to watch for whales and to report any sightings.

LeBlanc had previously said his department is investigating why whales are getting entangled in fishing gear or struck by ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year in a bid to find ways to minimize contact during next year's fishing season.

"We're trying to understand what we need to do both to prevent these whales from getting entangled … or perhaps being struck by ships in order to preserve this majestic and endangered species," LeBlanc said.

Three of the eight right whales found floating between the Magdalen Islands and New Brunswick's Acadian Peninsula this summer suffered blunt trauma, indicating vessel strikes.

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