Hon. Joseph A. Day (Leader of the Senate Liberals):
Minister, welcome. My question today relates to the tragic losses of the North Atlantic right whale. There is not a senator in this chamber that doesn’t have a horrible image of the carcasses of dead right whales floating this summer in the Baie-des-Chaleurs.
The question that I have relates to your announcement in late January of the changes to the snow crab fishery in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, including reducing the amount of rope floating on the surface of the ocean, the colour coding of rope and the mandatory reporting of all lost gear. All are aimed at reducing the risk of whales becoming entangled in the fishing gear being used. These changes are not insubstantial. In fact, they are quite significant to the fishery.
The season starts in April, as I understand it. Has there been a good response from fishers? Can you explain to us if this initiative is likely to be successful?
Hon. Dominic LeBlanc, P.C., M.P., Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard: Thank you, Senator Day, for your question. And thank you for expressing a concern that I’ve certainly heard, in every corner of the country, from Canadians about the tragic circumstance of the North Atlantic right whale.
The unprecedented 12 deaths between June and September in and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Baie-des-Chaleurs, as you correctly identified, have led to a huge effort globally, certainly on the part of our department but with American partners. NOAA in the United States has been one of the global leaders in research but also in protection and measures to ensure the long-term survival of this very endangered species.
I can say to you, senator, that I am extremely encouraged by the response of the commercial fishing industry and the marine transport industry in terms of what they can do to partner with us to reduce the chance of impact or mortality between these majestic creatures and human activity.
The necropsies that were performed by scientists on seven of the dead whales indicated that the two most important factors are entanglement with fishing gear and contact with ships. My colleague the Minister of Transport and I have come up with a series of measures.
The changes to the snow crab fishing gear, Senator Day, are, I think, but a start, and a good start, of what we can do to reduce the amount of rope floating on the surface. These whales go along the surface to feed. They get entangled in rope that’s floating between the different buoys, and, tragically, they sometimes drag that crab gear for kilometres and kilometres — sometimes, scientists tell us, hundreds of kilometres — and ultimately end up perishing.
The fishing industry wants to be a partner. We are looking at new technologies as well. I’m hoping to announce measures where we have rope-less traps. I’m told the fishing industry is anxious to pilot or try this technology where you would have a trap at the bottom of the ocean that you could remotely detect and bring to the surface without needing a rope. There are all kinds of exciting ideas.
We are going to continue to do what we have to do to ensure that every possible effort is made to minimize the tragic circumstances of last summer. I’m very happy by the desire of provinces and the industry to partner with us.
Senator Day: Minister, there is another initiative that you referenced during your news conference in Moncton; that is, the use of the Coast Guard to help move the ice away so the season for snow crab fishing can start sooner, and therefore, migrating whales and the snow crab industry are less likely to collide with one another. Can you update us on that?
Mr. LeBlanc: Thank you, Senator Day. You’re right. The industry itself suggested that as a measure. I have had a number of discussions with the Commissioner of the Coast Guard and other officers. Obviously, the capacity to send icebreakers to open certain key ports in northern New Brunswick or in Quebec, for example, may allow us to start the season earlier than in typical years. Scientists say there is no reason why we couldn’t start the season at the end of March or early April. It’s often a function of ice floes and ice patterns and the ability of the fishing fleets to get to the crab grounds. If we have a way to open these critical ports, the Coast Guard is certainly preparing operational plans that might allow us to do that.
As you would know from your work with the navy and Coast Guard league, senator, necessarily the priority is around safe marine transportation, search and rescue. You can imagine the circumstances around Newfoundland and Labrador or the St. Lawrence Seaway. The availability of the icebreakers will only become a reality as we get closer to that point, but the Coast Guard tells me they are confident we can use that as an option.
Last year the whales came to the outer bank of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June. My hope is if we can start the season earlier, the quota will likely be less than it was last year. It was a historic quota, which means that the fishing at least on the outer part of the bank where the whales arrived first last year may be concluded and the gear could be moved closer to shore. That’s certainly something that we will prioritize.