SHEDIAC, N.B. – As Canadian officials scramble to determine whether an endangered whale caught in fishing rope off Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula may have freed itself, federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc is promising a new set of rules around commercial fishing gear to protect the large marine mammals.
A North Atlantic right whale was spotted entangled in ropes during a fly-over of the Gulf of St. Lawrence Monday, but LeBlanc said aerial and water patrols were unable to locate it Tuesday.
“We identified a pod of 13 other North Atlantic right whales that were in the exact vicinity of where the other whale had been spotted entangled the previous day,” he said. “We’re continuing to patrol the area but scientists believe it’s possible that perhaps the whale freed itself.”
Officials are investigating whether the fishing gear rope that entangled the whale was in the area legally or had been lost or abandoned, which LeBlanc said has been the case with other entanglements this summer.
Ten right whales have died since June in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, an unprecedented number of deaths for the endangered marine mammal.
With an estimated population of 500 around the world, conservation groups and marine scientists have warned that the North Atlantic right whale is at imminent risk of extinction.
The biggest threats to the whales appear to be ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.
LeBlanc said the federal government will usher in a new set of rules around fishing gear to improve the safety of whale migration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“Next year’s season of potential whale migration will have a different set of rules around fishing gear, fishing practices, fishing equipment and probably the question of marine transportation as well in Canadian waters,” he said.
Ottawa already ordered large vessels to slow down in the Gulf of St. Lawrence earlier this month, in an effort to reduce the frequency and severity of ship strikes as it probes the deaths.
Vessels of 20 metres or more are required to slow to 10 knots — or about 19 kilometres per hour — while travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence, from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island.
The whales, which summer off New England and Atlantic Canada, are among the most imperilled marine mammals on Earth. Populations have only slightly rebounded from the whaling era, when the blubber-rich baleen whale became nearly extinct.
While 10 of the whales have died in Canadian waters, three have been found dead in U.S. waters. In all, 13 of the marine mammals have been found dead this year, more than triple the annual average of 3.8 in Canada and the U.S.
The alarming number of deaths has prompted the United States government to launch an investigation.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries branch declared the deaths “an unusual mortality event,” triggering a sweeping study into the cause of the deaths, including environmental and habitat conditions, threats from commercial fishing and shipping and other risk factors.
NOAA Fisheries officials will work with counterparts at Fisheries and Oceans Canada on sampling and data collection, analysis and recommendations for future responses.
“We’re eager to work with any international partners that have experience dealing with these difficult situations,” LeBlanc said, noting that NOAA has some of the best scientific data and experts in the world. “Canadians share the profound concern that our government has about the alarming North Atlantic right whale deaths over the last number of months.”
Last month, lobster fisherman Joe Howlett was killed in waters off eastern New Brunswick after he freed a right whale caught in fishing gear.
The death prompted LeBlanc to order a stop to disentangling right whales, and on Wednesday he said he’s not prepared to authorized whale disentanglements until a report into Howlett’s death is complete.
— By Brett Bundale in Halifax