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What we heard report

A summary of comments from the Ministerial Roundtable on North Atlantic Right Whales

What We Heard Summary

Minister LeBlanc began the rountable noting the devastating summer it was for NARW and thanking participants for their attendance as the Government of Canada works to protect this iconic species. The Minister also expressed his gratitude to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative and the teams of scientists, veterinarians and others who worked tirelessly to carry out necropsies. He further thanked those who had worked hard to respond to whales in distress, especially Mr. Joe Howlett of Campobello Whale Rescue who tragically died while disentangling a NARW on July 10, 2017.

Minister LeBlanc also thanked the Honourable Marc Garneau, Minister of Transport, for implementing a mandatory speed limit of 10 knots for vessels over 20 metres in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence, and thanked ship captains for respecting the new rule in the interest of avoiding collisions with NARW.

An overview of the overall state of the NARW was presented by DFO Biologist Matthew Hardy to provide context on the challenges facing this species. In the past, when the right whales arrived in Canadian waters, most remained in the Bay of Fundy. However, in summer 2017, over 100 NARW were spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, an area of significant human activity. Whale scientists and conservationists in both Canada and the United States are working to understand NARW distribution changes. While these whales are expected to embark on a long, slow migration back to warmer waters off Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, in a few short months, these whales will once again turn north in pursuit of their summer feeding grounds off the eastern United States and Canada.

Mr. Hardy indicated that the main threats faced by NARW are entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes. He summarized the Government of Canada’s response to the NARW presence and deaths, which included extensive surveillance efforts and changes to fisheries and marine transportation measures.

A robust discussion ensued. Participants stated that there is a need to act now, even as scientific understanding evolves, and to use adaptive management to adjust as more is learned. Participants also indicated that the Government of Canada must show leadership, act quickly, streamline processes and think outside the box.

Participants raised the need to advise the fishing and tourism industry as soon as possible so they can adjust and prepare accordingly. As any decision will have an impact on stakeholders, both short-term and long-term strategies should be developed, shared widely, and revised as needed. For example, participants shared that changes to regulations and gear modifications would come with possible market impacts and additional costs for fishers and these impacts should be researched and mitigated as much as possible by Government. It was also shared that while the financial impact on the tourism industry this summer was significant, finding a way to safely co-exist with the NARW could lead to the tourism industry benefitting from whale watching increased tourism like in the Bay of Fundy.

During the meeting, the following measures were proposed and discussed to minimize risks to right whales:

Modify existing fishing gear
Adjust fishing seasons
Recover lost and abandoned fishing gear
Improve whale sightings information
Seasonal speed restrictions in target areas and adjustments to shipping lanes
Collaboration, coordination and awareness across industry sectors, governments and non-governmental organizations

The Minister said that all of these initiatives will be considered as part of the suite of options, during the 2018 and future fishing seasons. The Minister also highlighted that opportunities will be sought to test the application of new gear technologies, to help reduce the amount of rope in the water and therefore lower the risk of entanglements, including through DFO-led studies and industry-driven practical pilots.

Minister LeBlanc closed the meeting by noting that the Ministerial roundtable was part of a sustained dialogue and a shared sense of urgency to take concrete action to protect the North Atlantic Right Whale. The Minister said he heard the need to provide Canadians with access to relevant real time, reliable and transparent data. The Minister also noted that concerns raised at the roundtable would be shared with the Minister of Transport.

Minister LeBlanc indicated that the day’s discussion was profoundly helpful in creating a better understanding the options available to better protect the remaining right whales in our waters. Resources and investments such as the Government of Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan and the Atlantic Fisheries Fund will continue to support solutions. More work on dynamic and adaptive measures continue moving forward.

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