1st endangered right whale spotted in Canadian waters, triggering crab fishery closure

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This North Atlantic right whale was spotted northeast of the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Sunday. (DFO Science-Aerial Survey Team - image credit)
This North Atlantic right whale was spotted northeast of the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Sunday. (DFO Science-Aerial Survey Team - image credit)

The first North Atlantic right whale of the season has been sighted in Canadian waters, triggering an early and localized snow crab fishery closure in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Observers flying in a plane spotted the whale Sunday afternoon northeast of the Magdalen Islands in the Cabot Strait.

"I would say they are essentially here on time, perhaps a little bit early," Sean Brilliant of the Canadian Wildlife Foundation said Monday.

Right whales are critically endangered. The sighting came three days ahead of the April 28 start date for measures to protect them, including automatic fishery closures ordered by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and shipping-lane restrictions implemented by Transport Canada in the gulf.

"I expect that there'll be some consideration for adaptive management at this point," Brilliant said in an interview after the sighting was posted to a right whale map compiled by Dalhousie University.

DFO said Monday it has responded. "This sighting has triggered a 15-day fishing closure in crab fishing area 12F," the department said in a statement. Fishing area 12F is east of the Magdalen Islands.

'Fairly severe and drastic action'

Ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear are the two leading causes of death in right whales. Since 2017, 20 of the whales have died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In recent years, Ottawa has closed fisheries when right whales are spotted in an area and imposed ship speed limits in the gulf during the months when they are present.

This year, when a right whale is sighted, an area around it is closed to fishing for 15 days. If a second sighting occurs during days nine to 15, that area will be closed until November.

"This is a fairly severe and drastic closure in an attempt to make sure that we're doing the best we can to keep fishing gear away from whales," Brilliant said.

Right whales migrate each spring from the waters off the southeastern U.S. to Canadian waters, including the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The lucrative snow crab fishery is fully underway in the Gulf of St Lawrence. In recent years the season has opened early in an effort to catch more of the quota before whales arrive.

No right whales died in Canadian waters in 2018 and 2020.

Monitoring

To monitor the whales, Canada uses aerial drones, underwater gliders and acoustic sensors, in addition to aircraft manned by observers.

Researchers estimate fewer than right whales 400 survive, with fewer than 100 breeding females left.

Currently, dozens of North Atlantic right whales are congregating near Cape Cod, Mass.

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