Government of Canada unveils its plan for protecting North Atlantic right whales in 2018


March 2018

Last year, 12 right whales died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence out of an approximate global population of 450. These deaths are unprecedented and extremely concerning.

The Government of Canada is concerned about the deaths of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and we are taking action specific to the shipping and fishing industries to help protect North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These measures complement existing protection offered under the Species at Risk Act and Marine Mammal Regulations under the Fisheries Act.

At the start of the shipping and fishing 2018 season, additional measures will be put in place to help protect right whales. These actions follow consultation this winter with partners, experts, stakeholders, and Indigenous groups to mitigate right whale injuries and deaths. The comprehensive set of actions in 2018 includes:

Slowing down boats

A speed restriction between April 28 and November 15 to a maximum of 10 knots will be imposed for vessels 20 metres or more when travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence. The speed restriction zone may be changed as needed as the whales migrate through the area. Dates may be adjusted depending on evidence of right whales in the area and marine safety issues. 

The Government of Canada will allow ships to travel at usual speeds in parts of two shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island when no whales are in the area. A 15-day mandatory slowdown to 10 knots will be activated within a section of the shipping lanes when a North Atlantic right whale is spotted and may be extended as needed. 

Transport Canada will enforce this measure with support from the Canadian Coast Guard. Following an investigation, vessel owners who fail to comply will face a penalty between $6,000 and $25,000. The penalty for a first offence is $6,000 unless there are aggravating circumstances.

Adjusting fishing seasons to make way for whales

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) will implement a fixed closure within the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery on April 28, 2018, for the remainder of the season. The area will be closed to fishing activity. Right whales are known to forage in this area, and it is where most of the right whales were observed in 2017. 

DFO will also implement temporary closures for fixed-gear fisheries when a right whale is observed in that area, by designating an area closure for 15 days. Such closures could extend beyond 15 days if whales remain in the area. The closure would be lifted after two overflights where no whales are observed.

In both cases, temporary and fixed fishery closures, these measures may be adapted as needed over the season.

In the southern Gulf snow crab fishery, DFO will implement other mitigation measures including: trap reductions; an earlier opening (the forecasted weather for the next few days will help to start the breakup of ice across the area in cooperation with a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker) and earlier closure of the season; and requiring that snow crab vessels report their activity on the water more frequently through DFO’s vessel monitoring system.

All snow crab gear will be required to be removed from the water by June 30, 2018, two weeks earlier than normally scheduled. 

Actively looking for whales

The Government of Canada will use a variety of tools to locate right whales in 2018 including aircraft surveillance, and fixed and mobile underwater microphones, including acoustic gliders. We will increase our aerial surveillance, our primary means for detecting right whales, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We expect to spend hundreds of hours of flight time looking for right whales and other marine mammal species in the Gulf. DFO is also working with Canadian and international experts to improve whale detection technologies.

Transport Canada National Aerial Surveillance Program aircraft will fly twice a week, weather permitting, with trained whale observers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada on board to monitor the shipping lanes. 

DFO will also conduct ongoing surveillance of active and closed fisheries to ensure compliance.

Using less rope in the water

Entanglement in fishing gear can contribute to injury and death for many large whale species and fishing gear can remain attached to a whale for years. For 2018, DFO has limited the amount of rope floating on the surface of the water in the snow crab fishery. We are also exploring regulatory measures that would reduce, when appropriate, the amount of vertical rope in the water column.  

Keeping better track of rope and buoys

Fishers in the southern Gulf snow crab fishery will be required to mark the primary ropes attaching traps to a buoy with a colour specific to the fishing area in which they are authorized to fish. Also in the southern Gulf snow crab fishery, fishers are required to identify each primary buoy with a sequential number so individual crab traps can be identified. This will help officials to identify where incidents have occurred in the event of future entanglements.  

Mandatory reporting of lost gear

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is adding a reporting requirement to all licence conditions that interactions with marine mammals are required to be reported. This is to improve the scientific data that the Department uses to base management decisions on. This requirement helps to align Canadian measures with US measures in terms of fish harvesters reporting on marine mammal interactions.

Exploring new fishing technologies and methods

The Department is exploring new fishing technologies and methods that would maintain an active fishing industry while also reducing the risk of whale entanglements. DFO is supportive of industry-driven testing of new gear technologies, such as ropeless gear. These new technologies could lead to future reductions in the amount of rope in the water.

Working with our partners

The current state of the right whale population is extremely concerning and the Government of Canada will continue to work with experts, industry, environmental groups, and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to gain a better understanding of this complex issue and shared responsibilities. Partnership and collaboration continues to be vital in protecting not only the right whale but all marine mammals threatened by human activity.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is lifting the pause on right whale disentanglements following a review of the risks involved and using advice from experts. Fisheries and Oceans Canada is committing $1 million per year to support marine mammal response groups, which is a significant increase from previous years.


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