In February, the Government of Canada announced its 2021 rules designed to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from encounters with vessels and fishing gear. Increasingly large aggregations of feeding right whales have been sighted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence each year since 2015.
In response to 12 right whale deaths in Canada in 2017, Canada has been developing a right whale protection program since 2018. It includes dynamic closures of fisheries when right whales are detected and gear marking, and mandatory speed restrictions for vessels longer than 42 feet (13 meters) in areas that right whales frequent.
Canada’s 2021 measures to protect right whales from entanglement encompass all of the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Quebec and Newfoundland up to the Strait of Belle-Isle. They also include fixed gear fished in Roseway Basin and the Bay of Fundy.
In 2021, Canada will continue to close an area approximately 1,245 ft2 (2000 km2) to fixed gear fisheries, including lobster and crab, for 15 days if a right whale is visually or acoustically detected. To trigger an extension of a closure in a dynamic zone, a right whale must be visually or acoustically detected a second time, from days 9 to 15 of the closure. Upon a second detection in a dynamic zone in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a seasonal closure will be implemented until November 15. In the Bay of Fundy and in the Roseway Basin, the closure will be extended an additional 15 days. The closure area will only be reopened if aright whale is not detected again in a closed area during days 9-15; two flights with no right whale detections are required. Outside the dynamic zone, closures will be considered on a case-by-case basis, with special consideration for sightings of 3 or more whales or a mother and calf pair.
If at least one right whale is sighted in waters between 10 and 20 fathoms, a temporary closure will be implemented and gear can be fished closer to shore in areas less than 10 fathoms deep. If at least one right whale is sighted in waters less than 10 fathoms, the closure would be effective to the shoreline.
Gear marking continues to be required for all fixed gear in Atlantic Canada to identify the region and fishery; for lobster and crab it must also identify the specific fishing area so each mark has 3 colors. The first two colors must be interlaced with the third color placed directly below. For example, the color for the Gulf region is blue and the Maritimes region is black. The color for snow crab gear is orange and lobster is yellow. Snow crab gear fished in Area 19 would be marked blue/orange/green (indicating GSL/snowcrab/Area 19). Lobster gear fished off Grand Manan would be marked black/yellow/black (indicating Maritimes/lobster/LFA 38). Fishermen are required to report all lost gear and accidental contact between a vessel and marine mammal.
DFO is working with fishermen, fishery by fishery, throughout 2021 and 2022 to implement weak rope or weak breaking points by the end of 2022 and requirements for maximum rope diameters, sinking rope between pots and traps, and reductions in vertical and floating rope after 2022. DFO is also authorizing the use of ropeless gear trials in closed areas and supporting industry trials of whale safe gear. They established a technical working group for fishermen, right whale experts, and departmental officials for regular meetings on right whale protection measures.
Canada’s 2021 measures to protect right whales from vessel collisions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence include a patchwork of speed limit restrictions. These include a large static area limiting vessel speed to 10 knots from late April to mid-November. A seasonal management area limits vessel speed to 10 knots from late April to late June, but allows regular transit speeds from June 30 to November 15 unless a right whale is sighted which will trigger a 15 day slow down to 10 knots.
Canada has established temporary closures in shipping lanes, called dynamic shipping zones, with four zones located south of Anticosti Island and one north of the island. If a right whale is spotted in these areas, vessels must slow to 10 knots for 15 days. If right whales are not detected during the last 7 days, the speed restriction will be lifted.
Canada has also established a restricted area in and around Shediac Valley where large aggregations of right whales are observed annually surface feeding. Vessels greater than 42 feet (13 meters) must avoid the area, however, fishing and government vessels are exempt from this restriction. The size, location and duration of this area is adjusted on an annual basis.
Canada is also piloting a voluntary slow down area in Cabot Strait to protect right whales migrating in and out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence from April 28 to June 29, and from September 29 to November 15.
Fines of up to $250,000 will be issued to vessels that disregard the mandatory vessel traffic management measures. According to Transport Canada, four penalties were issued in 2020 for non-compliance with speed restrictions.