Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Good afternoon, and thank you for the invitation to present before this committee.
My name is Dr. Moira Brown. I'm with the Canadian Whale Institute, and I am speaking to you today on behalf of North Atlantic right whales, which have been studied for almost 40 years, and on behalf of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team that responds to entanglements of whales in the Maritimes.
North Atlantic right whales are a transboundary species ranging from the southeast coast of Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They can be individually identified from photographs of their unique markings, and an identification catalogue is maintained at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. The catalogue data allows researchers to document distributions and movements, as well as population status and trends, reproduction, mortality, behaviour, right whale health and human-caused scarring.
Although the population grew at about 2.5% for 20 years, since 2010 the North Atlantic right whale has been in decline. Fewer than 450 remain. The two human-related causes of right whale mortality and serious injury throughout their range are vessel strikes and entanglement in fixed fishing gear.
Starting in 2010, researchers documented a species-wide shift in the spring, summer and autumn distribution away from the protected habitats in the Bay of Fundy and south of Nova Scotia. Survey effort was expanded, and in 2015 researchers found that many right whales were aggregating to feed and socialize in a large unprotected and high-risk region in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, an area that had not previously been studied. It is not new for right whales to be seen in the gulf, but prior sightings were confined to coastal areas. What is new since 2015 is the number of right whales seen in the offshore waters in the southern gulf and their residency for eight months, from early May through December.
In addition to the habitat shift, there are several indicators to show that the right whale population is in decline. There are fewer calves being born. On average there were 24 calves a year born in the 2000s. The calving rate decreased by 44% between 2012 and 2017, and there were no calves seen in 2018. The time between calves for adult females is increasing, in particular for those females that have been injured in an entanglement.
Since 2010, there has been a substantial increase in the number, severity and mortality of right whales from entanglements. Entanglement now accounts for 85% of right whale mortality throughout their range.
In 2017, there was a mortality crisis in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with 12 right whales found dead. Four to five deaths were as a result of a vessel strike, and two were from entanglement. In addition, there were five live entanglements found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, of which two were disentangled. Canada took immediate crisis management actions.
With respect to vessel strikes, Canadian researchers have worked with representatives of the shipping industry since 2000, and mortalities and serious injury from vessel strikes have been reduced because of vessel routing changes in the Bay of Fundy in 2003 and in Roseway Basin south of Nova Scotia in 2008. These measures were sanctioned by the International Maritime Organization and implemented by Canada, and there have been no subsequent reports of vessel strike mortalities in these two areas.
Following the mortalities from vessel strikes in 2017, the shipping industry quickly initiated a working group that included Canadian right whale scientists. Vessel routing and speed measures were designed specifically to address the situation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The measures appear to be effective. There were no observed vessel strike mortalities in the gulf in 2018. I would like to emphasize that the shipping industry has clearly demonstrated that they are willing and able to change their operations to reduce the risk of vessel strikes, and vessel captains in compliance with the mitigation measures deserve the credit for protecting right whales.
On entanglement and fixed fishing gear, rope from all parts of the fixed fishing gear industry have been removed from right whales during disentanglement efforts or necropsies, including inshore and offshore gear, small- and large-diameter ropes, trap/pot and gillnet gear, vertical and ground lines, floating and sinking line, and Canadian and U.S. gear. In Canada, there was little overlap in seasonal fisheries with right whales before the whales shifted their distribution into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The Canadian fishing industry has accepted responsibility for entanglement of whales in fishing gear. Following the gear entanglement mortalities in 2017, broad sweeping closures and gear modifications were put in place in the gulf. The industry is to be commended for their compliance.
The measures have been somewhat effective in that there were no entanglement mortalities observed. There were, however, three or possibly four new live right whale entanglements, and one whale with severe entanglement injuries was seen in the gulf.
All of these whales were seen in the gulf free of gear and injury earlier in the 2018 season. One right whale shed the gear on its own, one was disentangled in the Bay of Fundy, and the other two are at large.
It was a group of fishermen who formed the Campobello Whale Rescue Team in 2002. There are only two whale rescue teams in Atlantic Canada—one in Newfoundland led by a fisherman, and ours in New Brunswick—that have the expertise to disentangle large whales. Fishery officers provide an important supporting role to the third party teams, but there are large gaps in rapid response capacity, and it will take years to find responders, to train them, and to build the experience necessary to fill these gaps. I will also add that the disentanglement teams would like to be put out of business through the prevention of entanglements.
Fishermen have and continue to have a key role in reporting entangled whales, despite their fear of how it could affect their industry. I would like to emphasize that we will only be able to solve the entanglement problem through partnership with the fishing industry. The fishermen must know their gear, and the testing of any gear modifications is essential for the sustainability of the industry and the safety of fishermen and whales.
In summary, for right whales to make a comeback, there is no magic bullet. We will need to continue, and expand on, the collaborative partnerships so far developed to identify and implement area-specific mitigation measures that will protect right whales and be sustainable, effective and safe for industry. We will need a philosophy that is flexible and nimble, with a steady flow of near-real-time data, to be responsive to changes in right whale distribution and to monitor and adjust mitigation measures so that they are in place when and where they are needed.
Thank you for your attention.