Since 2017, many of us in the Canadian lobster industry feel like we’ve been trapped in a South Park episode. There has been a steady drumbeat eager to blame Canada for the plight of North Atlantic right whales (NARWs).
Geoff Irvine is of the Executive Director of the Lobster Council of Canada.
Nat Richard is the Executive Director of the Canada Lobster Processors Association.
Right whales were rarely observed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence until recently. Historically, they never ventured much beyond their northernmost habitats in the offshore south of Nova Scotia, during the summer and fall, before moving to their traditional winter calving grounds in the southeastern United States.
All that changed in 2017 when a large number unexpectedly moved to the Gulf. Tragically, we lost 17 right whales: 12 in Canadian waters and five in the United States. Two deaths out of 12 Canadian fatalities were found to be caused by crab gear entanglements.
NOAA’s data confirms that only 2 deaths out of 21 documented in Canadian waters since 2017 were linked to fishing gear. Most of the mortality -- when a cause could be determined -- was linked to deadly ship strikes by ocean freighters and cruise ships.
It is a plain fact that there has never been a single, documented right whale death linked to Canadian lobster gear in recent history. There are several reasons why lobster fishing presents a lower risk in Canada. It’s an inshore fishery conducted mostly in shallow waters of less than 20 fathoms, where right whales are rarely observed.
Our lobster fisheries are also managed differently. One key difference is that Canada’s Gulf lobster season in May-June is fixed at 60 days. Therefore, there is limited overlap with times of year when NARWs are most concentrated in the Gulf, from July to September. Another crucial difference is that our harvesters have an average trap limit of 300 per boat.
Our American peers have made huge strides and sacrifices in recent years to protect right whales and we commend them for their efforts. Canada has also been leading the way with the most aggressive management measures in the world.
Moira Brown, a senior scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute who has studied right whales for almost 40 years, recently stated that Canadian right whale measures were “unmatched in eastern North America.”
Canada’s lobster fisheries continue to maintain its third-party Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. It includes a rigorous annual analysis of the impact of our fishery on marine mammals, including NARWs.
Canadian snow crab harvesters have stepped up in a major way since the 2017 crisis. In 2022, many are trialing ropeless gear units under special permits to harvest in closed areas, in what is the largest R&D trial in North America.
Canada has spared no effort to protect right whales since 2017. We implemented a broad suite of measures, including comprehensive closure protocols, mandatory speed restrictions for fishing and large vessels, unprecedented de-icing resources to allow for early crab fishing before NARWs arrive, massive aerial and at-sea surveillance with cutting-edge detection technology, elimination all floating horizontal lines, “trawling” up to reduce vertical lines, 100-percent gear marking for all fixed gear fisheries, and more recently, a major push to remove ghost gear.
Canada is now working with harvesters to implement low-breaking strength rope or links to facilitate whales’ self-release.
The fact that not a single right whale mortality has occurred for the past three years speaks volumes about our approach.
North America’s lobster fishery has proven itself to be one of the most sustainable wild fisheries on the planet. For all of us who care deeply about its future, the path forward is clear.
First, let’s remember that lobster in North America is a highly integrated, multibillion dollar industry. Tens of thousands of fishing families, plant workers and hundreds of coastal communities depend on us setting the record straight and winning this fight.
Second, we need to stand up and push back on what Seafood Watch represents: activism masquerading as science.
Canada and the United States have a proud record of global leadership on seafood sustainability. Cooler heads must prevail. We need more science, and less politics; more bi-national collaboration, less finger-pointing.
Ensuring a sustainable future for the right whale knows no borders and needs to be addressed bi-nationally.
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