Caught with their traps down: U.S. lawmakers ask NOAA to assess Canada’s right whale protections

Eleven U.S. senators have urged NOAA to conduct an assessment of Canada’s Atlantic fisheries and evaluate effects on the endangered North Atlantic right whale population.

“Fishermen in the United States have made significant sacrifices to reduce deadly interactions with this species, and we need to understand whether Canada’s fishermen are being held to a similarly high standard in order to prevent the extinction of this species,” reads the letter sent on April 25.

Eighteen right whales died last year, the majority in Canadian waters, of the estimated 450 remaining.

Canadian Fisheries Minister Dominica LeBlanc ordered icebreakers to work the Gulf of St. Lawrence this spring in order for the snow crab fishery to begin in early April, weeks earlier than normal. The government also implemented a ship speed reduction in the gulf, a reduction in the use of floating rope and a requirement to report lost gear.

Despite those changes, the Marine Stewardship Council suspended certification of the fishery in March after approving it in the fall.

“While we applaud Canada’s efforts to address these ongoing crises, we remain concerned as to whether the measures enacted will sufficiently protect North Atlantic right whales,” reads the letter.

The senators brought attention to several other fisheries that interact with the whale population that have seen no additional regulations and the lack of a requirement to use weak links and trawls, which are both required in U.S. fisheries.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, foreign nations have a five-year period to match U.S. protection standards. If they do not, the U.S. can stop seafood exports from those countries.

New regulations were recently sprung on Canada’s lobster fishermen that are similar to those imposed on the snow crab fishery. Emergency closures can be declared if right whales are spotted near fishing grounds.

In a recent meeting with the lobster fleet, LeBlanc explained the measures, referencing the recent extension of the lobstering ban near Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts.

“Those right whales, make no mistake about it, are heading north,” he said, according to the CBC. “If there were 90 identified by American surveillance, those right whales will be coming into Canadian waters in the days and coming weeks.”

“Under American law, if a country does not take every reasonable and possible step to protect these highly endangered marine mammals, the American government can decide, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of the United States, that the remedy is to close the American border to imports of fish and seafood from that country, which would have a devastating effect,” he added.

The letter to NOAA was signed by 11 Democratic lawmakers: Massachusetts Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, Rhode Island Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, New Jersey Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New Hampshire Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, and Delaware Sen. Tom Carper.

About the author

Samuel Hill

Samuel Hill is the former associate editor for National Fisherman. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine where he got his start in journalism at the campus’ newspaper, the Free Press. He has also written for the Bangor Daily News, the Outline, Motherboard and other publications about technology and culture.

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