Advocacy group campaigns for Canada, U.S. unity on right whale conservation

An ocean advocacy group is calling for unified action from Canadian and U.S. governments to protect the dwindling North Atlantic right whale population from extinction.

Oceana is launching its campaign in Toronto and Washington, D.C. on Thursday.

The group is asking both countries to expand existing protection measures for the marine mammals, with a particular focus on preventing ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement.

Twenty-eight right whales have died in North American waters since 2017, including eight in Canadian waters this summer, of a population numbering only about 400 animals.

Kim Elmslie, campaign director for Oceana Canada, said the bi-national campaign is asking officials for urgent, collaborative responses to the worsening crisis, as the world’s oceans experience the effects of climate change.

“The species is still at risk of extinction, so we need to find solutions for this species across borders,” Elmslie said in a phone interview from Ottawa on Wednesday.

Recommendations include reductions in vertical lines used in fixed-gear fisheries and fishery closures that would come into effect once right whales are detected in an area.

Oceana is also lobbying for stronger tracking of fishing vessels, limits on seismic blasting in right whale territory, an expanded task force of right whale experts and more long-term funding for research, including necropsies, which probe an animal’s cause of death.

A supplementary report by Oceana Canada describes the history of the animal — named “right whales” because their slow swimming speeds and proximity to shore made them the “right” whales to hunt. After being hunted to near-extinction in the mid-1900s, the species made a slight rebound, but its status has taken a sharp decline in recent years.

Oceana Canada’s report also details the agonizing deaths right whales suffer when entangled in fishing gear, taking six months on average to die, usually from drowning or starvation.

The campaign comes after a summer in which a spate of right whale deaths highlighted the cross-border policy considerations that complicate ocean conservation efforts.

Last week, Massachusetts’ attorney general wrote to political leaders in eastern North America urging unity and action on right whale protections. In late August, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said it would pull out of an agreement that sought to reduce risk to right whales, arguing the rules were too restrictive and that Canadian fisheries and vessels posed the greatest risk.

Elmslie said complicated issues of intergovernmental collaboration are typical in marine conservation work, where large animals like right whales move through ocean regions governed by different laws.

Another challenge is the unpredictable impact of climate change in oceans, Elmslie said, making it difficult to draft effective policies as animals adjust their behaviour.

Right whales like to feed on small fish called copepods, and scientists believe the whales are following their prey into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in larger numbers, as temperatures rise in the more southern waters they used to frequent. This migration has put right whales at greater risk of ship strikes.

“They’re encountering threats they’ve never encountered before, because their food is shifting, and we could continue to see further shifts in the years coming,” Elmslie said. “That’s what makes it challenging, is the unknown, and trying to be predictive in what you’re doing.”

Some of Oceana’s recommendations aim to illuminate those unknowns, like funding more detailed necropsies on right whales killed in the Atlantic. Elmslie said this funding would fill in gaps about the greatest risks to the animals and would provide support for the scientists who carry out the physically and emotionally difficult work.

Canada strengthened its marine mammal protections last year, including vessel speed limits and minimum approach distances. Elmslie said Oceana’s campaign is about expanding and improving existing protections.

She said she is optimistic that whoever forms government after October’s federal election will remain committed to saving the species.

“There’s no silver bullet to this,” she said. ”It is going to take multiple departments, multiple organizations, multiple scientists, multiple industry groups to continue to work on this and solve this.”

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Blockades remain in place as Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs returning to B.C.

Hereditary chiefs from Wet’suwet’en First Nation are expected to return to British… Continue reading

Fort Macleod, Alta., to get special advance screening of new ‘Ghostbusters’ film

There will be something strange in the neighbourhood of Fort Macleod, Alta.,… Continue reading

Hundreds turn up at Coldest Night of Year walk in Red Deer

It wasn’t the coldest night of the year, which probably helped the… Continue reading

Police in Saskatoon shoot two dogs that attacked man, then advanced on officers

SASKATOON — Police in Saskatoon say officers had to open fire at… Continue reading

13-year-old Maskwacis teen missing

Maskwacis RCMP are asking for public assistance to locate 13-year-old Rebecca Soosay.… Continue reading

Fashion Fridays: The 8 best quality online stores! Shop the ultimate sales

Kim XO, helps to keep you looking good on Fashion Fridays on the Black Press Media Network

Your community calendar

Feb. 19 A Liberation of Holland event is being held at the… Continue reading

Wranglers win wild Game 1 double OT thriller over Red Deer Vipers

The best-of-seven series continues Sunday in Sylvan Lake

Kings and Queens basketball triumph over Ambrose, keep playoff hopes alive

Guard Sandra Garica-Bernal sets new Queens all-time steals mark

Five things to watch for in the Canadian business world in the coming week

TORONTO — Five things to watch for in the Canadian business world… Continue reading

View of a longtime economist: Slower growth but no recession

WASHINGTON — In this high-profile election year, the U.S. economy boasts an… Continue reading

Amy, chasing: Klobuchar, already beating odds, faces uphill climb

WASHINGTON — It’s been a running gag ever since she launched her… Continue reading

B.C. money laundering inquiry to begin amid hopes for answers, accountability

VANCOUVER — British Columbia’s attorney general hopes an inquiry into money laundering… Continue reading

Russian spy case documents missing or destroyed, Canada’s info watchdog finds

OTTAWA — Federal officials lost or possibly destroyed sensitive records about the… Continue reading

Most Read