New figures show at least seven North Atlantic right whales got entangled in fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer, and two died as a result.
Two of the whales were freed by rescuers, including Joe Howlett, who was killed during one of the missions.
A fifth whale wrestled itself free of fishing ropes, while the fate of the other two animals is unknown, according to the New England Aquarium figures.
Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc says he is concerned about “hundreds of feet of rope” floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
But he stopped short of promising changes to fishing gear, saying the government still must consult with scientists, including U.S. experts.
“The commitment I can make is that next year’s season will be different than this year’s season in terms of our preparedness, in terms of the discussion we’re having around fishing gear, marine transportation, real-time surveillance,” LeBlanc said in an interview.
“All of these measures will be brought together in a co-ordinated way.”
The future is bleak for an entangled whale.
Many animals will carry the gear for months, if not years, before slowly succumbing to their injuries, according to Philip Hamilton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium.
“It is heartbreaking because of the suffering,” he said.
Snow crab gear a culprit
In 2015 and 2016 combined, at least three whales got tangled up in fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including one that died from its injuries.
In those cases, Hamilton said, scientists are sure the whales were caught up in snow crab gear.
Given the location of the seven whales found entangled this year, it’s “likely” they were also victims of snow crab gear, he added.
Just last week, scientists cut a snow crab trap from a right whale carcass during a necropsy performed on Miscou Island.
Wrapped in heavy ropes, the animal had apparent deep cuts on its body, mouth, fins and blubber.
CBC News sought interviews with snow crab fishing representatives but no one was available.
‘We’ve just lost a big chunk of the population’
LeBlanc has said that every suggestion is on the table, as the federal government faces mounting pressure to protect a species at risk of disappearing.
At least 14 whales have died in the Atlantic Ocean this summer, including at least 11 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. No more than 500 of the animals remain.
According to Hamilton’s research, only one in four or five carcasses washes ashore, meaning the true death toll could be much higher.
“If that were the case, then we’ve just lost a big chunk of the population,” said Hamilton, who described the deaths as “profoundly discouraging.”
So far, the federal government has closed a crab fishery early and is forcing large ships to slow down in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“That speed limit will move as we get information on the migration of the whales,” the minister said.
The government will “massively” increase the amount of aerial and on-the-water surveillance to develop better real-time data on the animal’s’ movement, LeBlanc said.
The department is also considering limiting the amount of rope floating on the surface, as a condition of a fishing licence.
No immediate changes for rescuers
As Transport Canada continues to investigate Howlett’s death, LeBlanc said the federal government will move quickly to make changes once the results are in.
But LeBlanc didn’t say what those changes could entail.
“The best way to go forward probably is a combination of governmental resources [and] expertise from other partners.”
The federal government is responsible for managing the at-risk species. But for years, a team of volunteers in the Maritimes has carried out whale rescues with minimal financial compensation from government.
The Campobello Whale Rescue Team — co-founded by Howlett in 2002 — has called for more help.
“Our department will be happy to have conversations with them about the best way we can support the work they do,” LeBlanc said.
“But we also have other partners who are doing a great deal of work in this area as well.”
The government is figuring out how to spend $1.5 billion announced last fall as part of an Oceans protection plan.
That could include putting more money into endangered species and “partners” like the Campobello team, LeBlanc said.
“To be honest, the tragic passing of Mr. Howlett has made that discussion more urgent and more real,” he said.
“Because in no way will I authorize putting the lives of our staff or anybody else who’s working with us in a circumstance that might be dangerous without having every possible effort to ensure their safety.”
The federal government has placed limits on whale rescues since Howlett’s death, suspending right whale rescues. Fisheries and Oceans must give permission before launching a rescue mission for any other whales.
Coast guard broke rules
Earlier this month, a Canadian Coast Guard ship was fined for going too fast in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
LeBlanc, who oversees the coast guard as fisheries minister, said he was “profoundly unhappy” when he learned the ship sped past the 10-knot limit.
He put his “unhappiness” into a letter directed to the commissioner of the coast guard.
“He assured me that he has put into place a series of measures that should prevent that kind of unacceptable conduct from happening again,” LeBlanc said.