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New regulations in Canada should reduce the number of right whales getting tangled up in fishing gear.

Nick Hawkins/Minden Pictures

Canada’s ‘dynamic’ plan to protect endangered right whales rests on robots

With only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining, the Canadian government is stepping up its efforts to keep them safe, even as it tries to keep the nation’s lucrative snow crab and lobster fisheries in business. Officials yesterday announced the nation’s latest plan for reducing the number of these behemoths being hit by ships or tangled up in fishing nets. It calls for regulating fishing and shipping in a larger area than in previous years but aims to restrict most activities only after a whale has been spotted nearby. Those “dynamic” restrictions will rest, in part, on data collected by robotic submarines equipped with sensors that can detect right whale calls, as well as airborne drones doing visual surveys.

Right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), which breed off Florida and head north to summer off New England and northeastern Canada, have in recent years been shifting where they hang out. More of the whales have been appearing in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, likely because of a warming ocean. As they migrate and feed, they can get hit by ships or tangled in fishing gear, problems that are taking an increasing toll on this vulnerable population, which has been declining since 2010. Since 2017, 30 whales have died this way, says Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Canadian government responded in 2018 by closing some fishing areas and slowing ships down while whales were present and investing $1 million to help rescue whales in trouble (such as by cutting away entangling nets). Last year, it confined those restricted areas to where 90% of the whales had been spotted 2 years earlier—but by the end of that season, it had imposed dynamic restrictions across the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence. Under the dynamic regulations, fishing is prohibited, and ship speeds are reduced for 2 weeks in areas where a whale is spotted. If there is a second sighting within that period, the area is closed to fishing and shipping through mid-November. In 2020, dynamic restrictions will be in place across both the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy to the south.

Dynamic regulation should be “more friendly towards fishers,” Bernadette Jordan, Canada’s fisheries minister, said at a public briefing yesterday. In the past, fishers had been barred even from areas where there were no whales, notes Brett Gilchrist, a fisheries expert with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “Our ability to adapt to where the whales are detected is absolutely what we need,” he says.

Conservationists are pleased that Canada is moving to protect the whales, but have some reservations about the new plan. It “means there will be [fishing] gear in the water when the whales are present; that creates a huge risk for the whales,” Monsell says. “More restrictions, not fewer, are needed.”

Monsell does praise efforts by the Canadian fishing industry to modify gear to be more whale friendly. By the end of 2021, fishers—including lobster and crab harvesters—will be required to have smaller diameter, weaker ropes securing their gear, so that whales can more easily break free if caught. And, Monsell says, “We are pushing the Canadian and U.S. governments to transition to ropeless gear,” which can use electronic signals to allow fishers to find and retrieve their traps and nets. And there’s more good news for right whales, Monsell adds. Two years ago, no calves were spotted among returning right whales. But in the past year, researchers have spotted 10 newborns.