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Marine conservation groups press for stricter protection of right whales

A dead North Atlantic right whale being pulled to shore in Norway, P.E.I. last month so that a necropsy could be performed. Preliminary results suggest the whale died of blunt force trauma consistent with a ship strike. - File photo
A dead North Atlantic right whale being pulled to shore in Norway, P.E.I., last month for necropsy. Preliminary results suggested the whale died of blunt force trauma consistent with a ship strike. - Eric McCarthy

Six whales found dead in Canadian waters so far this year

One day after the Canadian government announced further measures aimed at the protection of endangered North Atlantic right whales, a collective of six Canadian marine conservation groups are arguing the measures don’t go far enough.

Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, and federal Transportation Minister Marc Garneau announced on Monday that the government of Canada is expanding the zones in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where speed restrictions apply, the slowing down of more ships, increased aerial surveillance, and funding for initiatives to enhance marine mammal response.

“The well-being of the endangered North Atlantic right whale population is of great concern to Canadians and its protection is a significant priority for the Government of Canada,” the ministers said in a prepared statement. 

They point to substantial measures taken by Ottawa over the past two years and refer to the recent deaths as “extremely troubling".

Action requested

Environmental groups want further protections for right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence including:

  • expanding the mandatory speed restriction zone for vessels to include the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence; 
  • continue the newly announced intensive aerial monitoring of shipping lanes through to Nov. 15, 2019;
  • strictly enforce speed restrictions for vessels; 
  • issue maximum fines to those who break the speed limit and publish all convictions on the Transport Canada website; 
  • create an emergency response task force; 
  • invest additional funds, beyond the recent federal investment, to support the emergency marine mammal response network in their work.

Government’s response includes tripling the number of flights by Transport Canada’s National Aerial Surveillance Program and Fisheries and Oceans Canada until at least July 15; extending the slowdown zone for vessels further east and including vessels over 13 metres, down from 20; closing areas to non-tended fixed-gear fishing for 15 days when one or more whales are sighted, and funding of projects for the protection of whales. 

In a joint statement on Tuesday the groups Oceana Canada, Ecology Action Centre, Sierra Club Canada Foundation, World Wildlife Fund Canada, International Fund for Animal Welfare and Humane Society International/Canada acknowledged the Canadian government’s measures but called on them to do more.

“North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered whales on the planet,” the groups said. “With approximately 400 of these animals left and fewer than 100 reproductive females, the death of any right whale is one too many.”

The groups note there have been six North Atlantic right whale deaths, including four breeding females, in Canadian waters this year and warn the death rate may be on a similar trajectory to 2017 when 12 whales were found dead in Canadian waters. 

“Continuing along this path will be devastating to right whales’ chance of survival,” said the marine conservation groups. “No one wants to see the crisis continue and additional actions are necessary.”

They point to necropsies on four whales that suggested three of the whales died from blunt force trauma consistent with ship strikes. 

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has also reported efforts are underway to locate and free three whales seen swimming while entangled in rope, including one whale previously seen entangled in U.S. waters in April.

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