Bid to reduce right whale deaths ‘extremely effective’: officials

In this Wednesday March 28, 2018 photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass.
In this Wednesday March 28, 2018 photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. Michael Dwyer/The Canadian Press/AP

A year after the population of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales suffered devastating losses, Canadian officials say measures taken this season to protect the species have worked.

With the summer fishing season in the Gulf of St. Lawrence drawing to a close, the Fisheries Department confirmed Friday that not one whale has died as a result of a ship strike or fishing gear entanglement – the main causes for most of the deaths last season.

In all, 17 right whales died last year – 12 of them in Canadian waters – prompting concerns that the population might be on the fast track toward extinction.

READ MORE: Carcass of North Atlantic right whale found off U.S. coast

The federal government responded with a series of protection measures, which included speed restrictions for boats, increased surveillance and a series of closures of fishing areas where right whales were spotted.

Story continues below advertisement

Some of the measures were unpopular with fishermen, but Fisheries Department spokesman Adam Burns said they were “extremely effective.”

“We know that the measures we put in place this year have had real economic impacts on some communities,” he said. “But this is an important step forward for the management measures we put in place.”

WATCH: Canada closes more fisheries to protect Right whales

Click to play video 'Canada closes more fisheries to protect Right whales' Canada closes more fisheries to protect Right whales
Canada closes more fisheries to protect Right whales

There are believed to be fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales remaining and, of those, only about 100 breeding females.

In all, 135 individual whales were spotted this summer in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, compared with 114 confirmed sightings last year. However, no calves were seen, a troubling development that has raised new concerns about the fate of these massive mammals.

Story continues below advertisement

Meanwhile, the protection measures remain in place because some whales were recently spotted in the Gulf, as well as the Roseway Basin off southwestern Nova Scotia and the Grand Manan Basin in the Bay of Fundy.

The restrictions won’t be lifted until the whales return to their wintering grounds farther south, Burns said.

READ MORE: DFO announces another fishing closure after recent right whale sightings

In June, a fishermen’s group took aim at a fisheries closure in the Bay of Fundy, saying the move was an overreaction because only one whale had been seen in the Grand Manan Basin.

That closure and others affected fixed-gear fishermen with licences to fish for lobster, crab, groundfish, herring and mackerel. Snow crab fishermen in the Gulf were also affected.

Burns said federal officials have already started getting ready for next season, with a series of consultations with fishing industry representatives planned for this fall in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.

And in November, a committee of marine mammal experts will review scientific data that should provide a clearer picture of the whales’ distribution in the region.

Fisheries officials are also taking part in pilot projects aimed at testing fishing gear that could reduce the number of entanglements.

Story continues below advertisement

On Aug. 5, the Campobello Whale Rescue Team managed to free an entangled right whale that had been spotted in the Bay of Fundy a week earlier. The whale, identified as an adult male, had an orange buoy trailing behind it.