The North Atlantic right whale is the most endangered large whale on the planet. Historically found throughout the Atlantic Ocean, it was named the “right” whale because its large body and thick blubber made it attractive to hunt – it can weigh up to 70,000 kilograms and measure up to 18 metres. This led to centuries of overexploitation.
Globally protected from commercial whaling in 1935, the North Atlantic right whale is now almost solely found in the Western Atlantic Ocean, from the coast of Florida up to Atlantic Canada. Increasing numbers of North Atlantic right whales are being killed by human activities, making this a major factor limiting the population’s recovery by impacting overall population survival. Specifically, North Atlantic right whales are highly susceptible to ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear due to their habitat being heavily used by the shipping and fishing industries. This, combined with lower calving rates since 2010, is restricting the species’ ability to recover, placing them at risk for extinction in as little as 20 years.
With increasing risks to North Atlantic right whales from entanglement and ship strikes, we are working alongside government and industry to better quantify the risks, and to develop innovative approaches to decrease the threat of entanglement and improve fisheries management measures.
The speed limit that should be considered for boats in the entire southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The number of North Atlantic right whale deaths since 2017 due to human activities. There were 17 deaths in 2017, three in 2018, and 10 so far in 2019. There were no calves born in 2018.
The estimated number of North Atlantic right whale individuals remaining.
The purpose of this project is to conduct stewardship, monitoring and necessary research activities that will contribute to the recovery of North Atlantic right whales by reducing their likelihood of becoming entangled in fishing gear in Canadian waters. In other words, this project focuses on entanglement prevention.
In 2007, Grand Manan Basin in the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin off of Southwestern Nova Scotia were designated as critical habitat. This designation protects these important North Atlantic right whale foraging grounds from human activities that may result in destruction of the habitat. Shipping routes were also rerouted to mitigate the risk of ship strikes. In recent years, however, larger numbers of North Atlantic right whales have been seen feeding in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. This change in distribution is thought to be due to increasing water temperatures causing copepods – their main prey – to be found in larger concentrations in the Gulf. The increase in North Atlantic right whale sightings in the Gulf brings new concerns about human activities in this area and the protection of North Atlantic right whales.
The project takes place in the Atlantic Canadian waters surrounding New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and southeastern Quebec.
The main project outcomes include fisher-led development and evaluation of fishing technology that will reduce entanglements; involvement of fishers and Indigenous communities in active roles that reduce the threat of entanglement; and improved knowledge of the distribution, health and entanglement risks of North Atlantic right whales within Canadian waters.
Sean Brillant, PhD
Sean joined CWF as the Manager of Marine Programs in 2010, leading the overall development and delivery of the marine conservation program and representing CWF’s position and interests in marine conservation to the public, the government and other partners. Following his PhD, Sean was a WWF-Canada postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University. He developed a movement model for right whales to predict where and when they might be at risk of entanglement. Sean is also a former Executive Director of Atlantic Coastal Action Program Saint John, a non-profit environmental management organization in New Brunswick. He has taught university courses for several years.
“The survival of North Atlantic right whales is going to require support from all Canadians. CWF will continue to work with all partners to lead initiatives to support emergency response, conduct research to reduce entanglement risks, and raise awareness about this majestic part of our Canadian marine heritage.”
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- 2013: CWF establishes CMARA – the Canadian Marine Animal Response Alliance – to coordinate marine animal emergency response efforts in Atlantic Canada
- 2017: An unusual mortality event is triggered when 17 North Atlantic right whales are found dead in US and Canadian waters. Five of those deaths are from blunt force trauma widely understood to have been caused by vessel strikes
- March 2018: Government of Canada announces new protection measures for the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence
- May 2018: CWF begins development of fishing effort displacement model. This model predicts where fishing effort (i.e. gear) will move to as a result of fisheries closures and exclusion zones implemented to prevent North Atlantic right whale entanglement
- November 2018: The first Ropeless Consortium is held in Massachusetts to discuss the potential for ropeless fishing gear as a risk mitigation tool for North Atlantic right whales. CWF’s Sean Brillant acts as Vice-Chair of this meeting
- 2019: CWF begins collaborating with fishers to trial ropeless fishing gear throughout the Maritimes
- July 2019: Eight North Atlantic right whales found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Government of Canada announces increased protection measures in the Gulf
- November 2019: CWF to chair the second Ropeless Consortium meeting being held in Portland, Maine
Evaluating and informing fisheries management efforts for conservation
About the project: The Canadian Wildlife Federation is working alongside government to improve fisheries management measures and to support evidence-based decision making for the conservation of at-risk marine species.
Goal: We want to increase transparency and improve the effectiveness of fisheries management decisions made to protect Canada’s large whales from entanglement in commercial fishing gear. To do so we are developing tools, such as mathematical models, to evaluate the costs to fisheries versus the conservation benefits of fisheries management measures. By examining the tradeoffs between the two, we can make recommendations on how to enhance the effectiveness of entanglement mitigation efforts, while minimizing disruptions to important commercial fisheries.
History: In 2017, North Atlantic right whale deaths from entanglement prompted the DFO to implement new fisheries management measures, including large fishing exclusion zones designed to protect foraging whales by keeping certain areas free of fishing gear. However, these measures raised concerns about the costs to fisheries and the effectiveness at reducing the threat of entanglement. We have developed a predictive model that allows us to examine where fishers will move to if excluded from their primary fishing ground. For example, the snow crab fishery in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence has closed many areas to fishing activity due to the presence of North Atlantic right whales. The fishers still need to be able to fish, however, so our model predicts where they might fish once their original location has been closed. Using this model, we can evaluate the socio-economic costs to the fishery as well as the conservation value (i.e. reduction of entanglement risk) of these closures.
Future: CWF recently completed validating the model by comparing model results with actual results. To do so, we used data from commercial fisheries and North Atlantic right whale sightings. Next, we will present the model to relevant stakeholders. Finally, we hope to adapt the model to other fisheries to be able to predict how they will react to closures. This would allow us to better inform management decisions and conservation efforts to mitigate the risk of entanglement.
Assessment of entanglement risk for Atlantic Canada whales
About the project: The Canadian Wildlife Federation is working to better understand the risk Canadian fisheries present to North Atlantic right whales and other marine animals.
Goal: We want to evaluate the consequences that fisheries management decisions have on the conservation of at-risk marine species and the operations of commercial fisheries. This work will provide a basis to improve future decisions made to promote species at risk recovery.
History: 83 per cent of the North Atlantic right whale population shows scarring from entanglement in fishing gear, and on average a quarter of the population shows evidence of new interaction with entanglement each year. It is unclear how much risk is posed by Canadian commercial fisheries and whether mitigation management decisions have been successful in diminishing the risk.
Future: CWF is developing a tool to evaluate entanglement risk to all at-risk whale species in order to help implement the best preventative measures possible to help these species recover and thrive.
Trials of ropeless fishing gear
About the project: The Canadian Wildlife Federation is partnering with fishers and First Nations communal-commercial fishers to test ropeless fishing technologies in Atlantic Canadian commercial fisheries.
Goal: We want to allow fishers to test various ropeless fishing gear systems to determine whether they are a potential risk mitigation tool to help prevent marine mammal entanglement from fishing gear.
History: In 2017, the Canadian government began closing fixed-gear fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in response to a large number of North Atlantic right whales found dead in the area. With the development of ropeless fishing gear, it is possible that fisheries could co-exist in areas with a high presence of North Atlantic right whales. While these ropeless systems have been tested and proven in other applications, minimal testing has been conducted in Canadian commercial fisheries.
Future: With funding from the Canada Nature Fund and PEW Charitable Trusts, we will purchase and test various ropeless fishing gear systems in partnership with fishers. Together, we will determine whether these systems may be a successful alternative to traditional fishing gear for use in areas currently closed to fishing due to the presence of North Atlantic right whales.
Fishing gear behaviour studies
About the project:The Canadian Wildlife Federation is collaborating with fishers to study the movement and behaviour of fishing lines of actively fished commercial fixed-gear, such as lobster and snow crab fishing gear.
Goal: By studying the behaviour of fishing lines in the water column, we hope to determine the amount of risk posed to species at risk by various configurations and types of rope. This will help to inform management decisions to ensure they are being made based on concrete scientific data as opposed to intuition.
History: In 2010 we conducted research on groundlines in the Bay of Fundy lobster fishery (Brillant and Trippel, 2010). Groundlines are the ropes used to connect traps on the ocean floor. We found that these lines do not always behave as might be expected, and they may pose only a small risk to marine whales, including the North Atlantic right whale.
Future: With funding from the Canada Nature Fund, we plan to expand on the work we have already conducted by studying endlines in addition to groundlines in other areas of the Maritimes. Endlines are the ropes that extend from a lobster or crab trap on the ocean floor to the surface.
Biophysical model of whale-vessel collisions
About the project: The Canadian Wildlife Federation, in partnership with Dalhousie University, is striving to better understand the impact that ocean-going vessels have when they strike whales. By using historical whale-strike data, we have created an interactive biophysical model that illustrates the stress exerted on the internal structures of a whale (e.g. skin, blubber, bone) by vessels and the resulting injury.
Goal: To identify the degree of injury whales incur after a vessel collision and to determine whether vessel size impacts the severity of the resulting injury.
History: In 2017, 17 North Atlantic right whale mortalities were recorded – the most in recent history. Of those 17 deaths, five individuals died from blunt force trauma widely understood to have been caused by vessel strikes. Current management practices, such as diverting shipping lanes and implementing speed restrictions, look to reduce the occurrences of whale strikes, but neither practice by itself is a perfect solution.
Future: By creating a biophysical model, CWF provides a tool for scientists and managers to better understand what occurs to a whale during and after a collision event. The information derived from the model can inform current speed restrictions and support the idea of a more conservative speed.
North Atlantic Right Whale - Eubalæna glacialis
Listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). They are federally protected and listed as Endangered under the Species at Risk Act, and additionally protected by the Marine Mammal Regulations under the Federal Fisheries Act. In the U.S., they are federally protected and listed as endangered and depleted in the U.S. under both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalæna glacialis) is one of the rarest and most endangered of the large whales. Recognized by their robust black bodies, lack of a dorsal fin, and rough patches of white skin on their heads (callosities), North Atlantic right whales can weigh up to 70,000 kilograms (70 tonnes) and measure up to 18 metres.
Habitat: Most North Atlantic right whales tend to stay in shallow, coastal waters, but we know very little about their other habitat requirements.
Range: Historically found throughout the Atlantic Ocean, today the North Atlantic right whale is found from Northern Florida in the south up to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and Quebec in the north.Learn More
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