Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Thank You, Canada, for Taking Bold Action to Protect North Atlantic Right Whales

A right whale trailing fishing gear. Image via NOAA.

Sometimes I wonder how I’d protect right whales if I were an ocean czarina. In the U.S. we’ve got powerful statutes – the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act – that require the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to protect and rebuild depleted marine mammal populations, often with input from other management bodies. What we don’t have is a streamlined process, even in the face of a crisis, to get the job done.

Less Talk and More Action

With less than 450 North Atlantic right whales remaining, this highly endangered species will be extinct in 20 years if we don’t reverse these trends. 2017 was a particularly devastating year with 17 deaths – five in the U.S. and 12 in Canada – due primarily to ship strikes and entanglements in commercial fishing gear. Sadly, 2018 doesn’t look any better with another entanglement death and no new calves in sight. Although we now face the great risk of losing this iconic marine mammal, NMFS is dragging its feet.

Late last year, the agency announced a plan that includes endless meetings of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, the creation of two new sub-committees (complete with industry lobbyists), and potential roadblocks after consulting with states, regional fishery management councils, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but one fishery with a bullseye on it has been the Canadian snow crab fishery operating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In crowded conference rooms across the U.S., NMFS and some fishermen have pointed to this fishery as the cause of several recent deaths and claimed that proposed solutions in the U.S. won’t make a difference unless the Canadians do more.

In fact, Canada is taking action faster than we are.

Take a Lesson from our Northern Neighbors

Recognizing the right whale crisis as a “shared responsibility,” Canada has taken unprecedented actions so far in 2018. The Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans (a real ocean czar) first responded in January with new requirements to reduce the amount of rope in the water, mark gear more effectively, and report all lost gear. Progress, but environmental groups agreed this didn’t go far enough. Then, last week, he raised the ante when he and the Canadian Minister of Transport announced a holistic plan to protect right whales in the Gulf of St Lawrence in 2018.

After consulting with stakeholders over the winter, the Ministers announced measures in the Gulf to reduce the total number of traps in the snow crab fishery, test “ropeless” technology this spring, require mandatory vessel speed restrictions for boats greater than 20 m (65 feet) nearly six months of the year, open the fishery earlier so fishermen can try to catch snow crab before whales even arrive, require all gear out of the water by a date certain, create dynamic and fixed closures when right whales are observed, increase aerial surveys, and require comprehensive reporting and monitoring to ensure compliance with these new measures.

This plan has teeth, and it’s going to happen. Did I mention some of these measures start next month?

Canada has shown its cards, and now the U.S. needs to follow suit. That’s why CLF and other conservation groups are using the courts to force federal regulators to comply with their legal responsibility to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale population.

NMFS may not operate the same way as Canada’s DFO (there’s no ocean czar), but in the U.S. we do have strong statutes that provide NMFS ample authority to force necessary actions in the face of an emergency. If NMFS can’t decide what it should do in the face of this right whale emergency, then Canada just gave us a road map. Merci.


A more in-depth discussion of the Canadian measures written by Regina Asmutis-Silvia, Executive Director of Whale Dolphin Conservation, can be found here:  



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