CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - The large number of deaths in right whales last summer has put a spotlight on an urgent need for more protection in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, says a marine mammal biologist.
Tonya Wimmer, who is also director and founder of the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), spoke during a fundraising event Sunday at UPEI that highlighted efforts to protect the whales and other marine species.
Wimmer said more long-term planning from a holistic point of view is needed to ensure industries can be sustainable while also protecting the many species living in the gulf.
“Right whales in particular are a highly-endangered species and obviously our priority, but really something like this can happen to almost anything,” said Wimmer. “We need to accelerate (the effort) and it needs to be very inclusive because that’s the only way this is going to get solved, is with everyone working together.”
The right whale population was estimated to be about 450 at the start of last summer, said Wimmer.
At least 17 of those whales died, while the species had only five births.
While the deaths, which were often caused by whales getting caught in fishing gear or hit by boats, resulted in a Transport Canada imposing a speed restriction in the gulf, Wimmer said efforts are already overdue.
“Sadly, I think the tragic events of the summer have really put a spotlight on the fact we need to really start seeing some movement in Canada,” she said.
About 70 people attended the fundraiser, which was hosted by Save Our Seas and Shores P.E.I. (SOSS P.E.I.), the UPEI Environmental Society and AVC Wildlife Club.
Funds raised at the event are going towards Ecojustice’s court challenge of oil exploration in the gulf.
Ecojustice, which represents the Sierra Club Canada Foundation and four other groups, is challenging the Newfoundland offshore petroleum board’s decision to renew Corridor Resources’ exploration license.
Gretchen Fitzgerald, national program director of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, gave an update on the lawsuit which is currently in a St. John’s court.
Fitzgerald said the license should not have been renewed when it expired at the start of 2017 and that the decision contravenes the Accords Act.
“It should never have been issued in the first place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It’s a critical marine environment and globally recognized for how productive it is and how important it is for species like the right whale,” said Fitzgerald. “And for communities in the gulf, it is critical that it’s protected so we can have a sustainable fishery and tourism industry.”
Colin Jeffrey, chair of SOSS P.E.I., said it’s important for groups to continue pushing government to improve environmental laws.
“We need to keep the pressure up. Because we have whales and so many other marine species that are in trouble right now and need our help,” said Jeffrey, who thanked both guest speakers for attending the event.
Wimmer advised individuals to call the MARS hotline if they spot entangled whales.
She said individuals send a message to government and industry on the importance of protecting the gulf.
“These animals and their habitats have to be considered because really the end result is that if they’re gone, we can’t get them back.”