Canada is defending measures it has taken to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, as political pressure — and blame — mounts from the United States in the wake of a rash of whale deaths in Canadian waters in 2019.

“We’re very confident that our measures are world class in nature and stand up extremely well to those in the United States,” said Adam Burns, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ director of resource management.

Burns was responding to the latest salvo from Massachusetts senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, who are threatening a ban of some Atlantic Canadian seafood products.

The senators blame a Canadian “roll back” of whale protection measures in 2019. Canada had 12 right whale deaths in its waters in 2017, then none in 2018.

A North Atlantic right whale swims in the waters of Cape Cod Bay in April. (AFP via Getty Images)

“Consequently, of the 10 right whale mortalities documented in 2019, nine occurred in Canadian waters,” they wrote in a Nov. 13 letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The U.S. had five (2017), three (2018) and one (2019) deaths in its waters during that time, according to the NOAA

The senators want proof Canada is doing as much as the U.S. to protect right whales before the whales return to Canadian waters in the spring.

‘Severity of the right whale crisis calls for urgent action’

“If NOAA finds that Canada’s conservation standards are not equivalent to ours, then NOAA Fisheries under the authority of the MMPA (Marine Mammal Protection Act) should consider taking action to prohibit imports of fishery and fishery products from the pertinent Canadian fisheries into the United States,” they wrote.

When the MMPA comes into force in 2022, the United States can ban seafood imports from countries without equivalent marine mammal protections after a comparability analysis.

The senators say that as a G7 economy Canada is exempt from the grace period. They are seeking an expedited “comparability analysis” under the act.

Sen. Ed Markey co-wrote the letter to the NOAA with Warren. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

“The severity of the right whale crisis calls for urgent action,” they said.

‘Hell yeah, we take it very seriously’

So far the U.S. commerce department has rejected similar calls for a fast-track review that could lead to a Canadian seafood ban.

But under court pressure from environmentalists in 2018, the United States banned Mexican shrimp and other seafood caught with gillnets that kill endangered vaquita porpoises.

The Atlantic Canadian seafood industry remains apprehensive.

“Do we take it seriously? Hell yeah, we take it very seriously. The U.S. remains our biggest market and that’s not changing anytime soon,” said Geoff Irvine of the Lobster Council of Canada.

Trap fisheries like snow crab and lobster are under the greatest scrutiny as a potential cause of entanglement, especially in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the scene of most right whale whale deaths.

In 2017, two of the deaths were attributed to entanglement in snow crab gear.

“Any time there’s a potential threat of a closure stopping product crossing borders, it’s certainly of serious concern, to any and all seafood processors or shippers in Nova Scotia,” says Osborne Burke, general manager of Victoria Co-Operative Fisheries, a large snow crab and lobster processor in Cape Breton.

Steps taken

Burke and Irvine point out Canada imposed numerous restrictions on fisheries in the Gulf of St Lawrence after 2017, including fishing restrictions, speed limits and a massive increase in aerial surveillance.

Environmentalist Sean Brillant of the Canadian Wildlife Federation defends the measures.

“I believe the actions that have been taken and are continuing to be taken by Canada are sound and deserve some acknowledgement that these are good decisions,” he said.

Did Canada ease up?

In the face of complaints from Canadian fishing groups, Canada modified its restrictions in 2019 after no right whale deaths in 2018.

That included reducing the size of a season-long closure area for snow crab in the Gulf in favour of dynamic closures imposed when a right whale is spotted in an area.

Warren and Markey contrast that with efforts by U.S. fishermen, especially those in their home state who have “significantly changed their practices to reduce whale mortality.

“Because the burden of reducing risk to right whales falls substantially on fishermen, it is essential that we understand whether U.S. and Canadian fishermen are being held to the same high standards.”

Conservationist rejects U.S. claims, but says more must be done

Brillant argues restrictions in place in Canada this year were as strong 2018.

“But ultimately the proof is in the pudding. And right now we’ve got all these dead whales with us, and that’s showing that despite all this good effort and good decisions it’s not adequate.”

In Ottawa, DFO’s Burns says Canada is able to respond faster than U.S. regulators to protect right whales, pointing to its power to shut down fishing in a 1,400-square-kilometre area after a single right whale sighting.

“They’re very aware that our legislation and regulations allow us to implement measures that help us avoid entanglement of North Atlantic right whales in a way that our colleagues in the United States simply are unable to do,” Burns said.

“And so while we’re focused on a slightly different approach … we share the objective of mitigating to the extent possible the impacts of fishing on North Atlantic right whales.”

The politics behind blame

U.S. politicians in New England are under pressure from their own lobster fishermen, who are facing demands for greater fishing restrictions to protect right whales.

This fall, Maine’s lobster industry backed out of an agreement to reduce the number of lines in the water by 50 per cent, on the grounds they were being asked to bear an undue share of the burden to protect whales.

“We’re heading into an election year. And Senator Warren is a presidential candidate for the Democrats. How much of this is just strictly politics and grandstanding as well. I wonder,” Burke said.

Brillant said the issue is quickly moving from a technical evaluation to a political calculation.

“This brings lots of other higher-scale issues in — for example, Canada-U.S. competition. Fishermen from America versus Canadian fishermen competing for the same sort of markets whether it’s here in Canada or in the U.S.,” he said.

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