By Sean Brillant
In 2017, 12 North Atlantic Right Whales died in Canadian waters. Five more died in U.S. waters. With about 430 individuals remaining, we need to do everything we can to save these precious marine mammals.
Knowledge is Power
When it comes to saving a species, knowledge is critical. Thus far, researchers know that the North Atlantic Right Whale is heavily impacted by ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, but we also know that noise and chemical pollution can also affect it. However, we don’t know everything there is to know about this species. We know that Right Whales move around a lot – they spend half of their time in American waters and half in Canadian waters. But they also migrate during the winter and we have no idea where they go. There is still so much to learn about this puzzling species; the more we know, the more we can do to help them.
In light of our shortage of knowledge about the North Atlantic Right Whale, the Government of Canada is erring on the side of caution. They’ve closed a large area of ocean just north of Prince Edward Island to fishing as the largest number of Right Whales were observed in that area last year. The Government has also imposed a number of very strict requirements and restrictions on the shipping and fishing industry. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as the Department of Transportation are taking some very serious actions to save the species and learn about them as well.
The Canadian Wildlife Federation is continuing to do research on the threats faced by Right Whales, and we’re also encouraging the Canadian public to educate themselves. CWF created The Watch program which will inform citizens what to do if they happen upon a marine mammal – dead or alive.
The more we all know, the better.
The Government of Canada has made it mandatory for fisheries to report interactions with marine mammals. There will also be much more surveillance this summer – planes, gliders and boats will be surveying the Atlantic coast on the lookout for Right Whales. Dalhousie’s WHaLE program, which CWF has helped support over the years, will also be continuing. This year, there will be three gliders in the water continuously for three months. These gliders will be searching for whales, including the Right Whale, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Roseway Basin. This year the WHaLE program will also begin detecting and recording the presence of Blue Whales!
Rescue and Response
The Government introduced a new Marine Mammal Response Program and also gave specialists the green light to disentangle Right Whales once again. As such, the regional response groups that make up the Canadian Marine Animal Response Alliance will be hard at work this year, disentangling all types of whales where possible, and should the worst happen and we lose more Right Whales, they will have access to more resources for necropsies.
This year the Government of Canada has created a large number of changes to fishing that is intended to help prevent entanglements and to inform future efforts. In addition to closed areas, fishermen must mark their gear in specific ways based on their location so that if it gets lost, we’ll be able to determine where it came from. Fishermen will also be using shorter lines and they’ll be required to report any lost gear. Moreover, Snow Crab fishing season will start and end earlier than usual and they’ll be using fewer traps than last year.
Here at the Canadian Wildlife Federation, we’re also studying fishing patterns and are looking to see if we can predict where fishermen are going to fish. By learning how to predict their movements, we’re hoping to decipher how management decisions change fishing.
We are also assisting with a project that will investigate fishing gear that gets lost in the oceans. We’re hoping to learn ways to reduce lost gear, how to tracking it when it does get lost, and if there are better ways to remove lost gear from our oceans and prevent other entanglements.
That said, fishing technology is really advancing - to the point where it might not be too long before we can fish without the use of rope. It’s called ‘ropeless fishing’ and we, at CWF, are hoping that ropeless fishing might be introduced as early as next year. The fishing industry is also embracing this notion. A year or two ago, the concept of ropeless fishing might have sounded like something out of a science fiction novel, but after this last year, it’s truly becoming a serious option.
Considering that one of the greatest threats to the North Atlantic Right Whale is ship strikes, the Government of Canada has decided that for a large portion of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, ships will be required to slow to 10 knots. Moreover, the shipping channel throughout the Gulf will be observed closely so that if whales are seen in that vicinity, they’ll also have a 10 knot speed restriction put in place as well.
While there has been much work on the harmful effects of ships strikes on whales, these investigations have focused only on very large and relatively fast-moving ships. Some are the size of a high rise building, and they usually travel at about 18 knots. However, no one has yet taken a good look at the potential for smaller, slower vessels such as fishing vessels and sail boats to harm big whales. We’re doing a preliminary study to determine if these vessels are also something we need to be concerned about.
If you’ve ever seen a North Atlantic Right Whale swimming through the waters, then you know how much they’re worth saving. These magnificent beasts make up a part of who we are as Canadians, and how we see ourselves. There are tough decisions and changes ahead to make sure they survive, but they are worth the hard work ahead for government, the fishing and shipping industries, and all of us. We gain enormous benefits from the ocean, but we have to adjust our activities so that we do not jeopardizing the presence of these, and other marine wildlife species.