Snow crab fishers using whale-safe gear borrowed through CanFish. Photo by the Canadian Wildlife Federation

Canada - How a gear lending program is helping the fishing industry and protecting right whales

When Alden Gaudet pulled into Tingish Harbour on Prince Edward Island, other fishers could hardly believe their eyes.

He’d had a successful day fishing snow crab, a crustacean that thrives in cold Atlantic waters, which wouldn’t typically be notable. However, last year when Gaudet made his way back to land with his catch, it coincided with a fishery closure due to a right whale sighting. When the endangered creatures are spotted, there’s a pause on the use of roped gear in the area. The closures specifically affect fisheries that use fixed gear, such as crab and lobster traps, which are dropped in the ocean and gathered later. In between deployment of the traps and harvesting, fishing lines run parallel from the sea floor to buoys on the ocean’s surface, which leads to whales getting entangled.

Gaudet could still fish in the area because he’d used whale-safe ropeless gear, which is still allowed during a closure. He borrowed it for free through a gear-lending program called CanFish, based in Halifax and administered by the Canadian Wildlife Federation. The program, the first of its kind in Canada, started in 2022 with funding from the federal government and is now in its second year of operation. However, the program hasn’t secured government funding for the upcoming year.

There are variations on the type, but generally, ropeless gear does not use a buoy and a line. Instead, a trap is dropped down and acoustic signals are sent to find it on the ocean’s floor. This triggers the release of the buoy and rope or inflates a pouch to float the gear to the surface.

Ropeless gear, which is still a relatively new technology and subject to frequent trades and upgrades, is an expense few fishers can take on, explained Gaudet. He has been in the fishing industry since 1995 and trapping snow crabs for over a decade. To him, the lending program is an essential way to protect right whales and help ensure fishers keep their livelihoods.

Fishers are resistant to purchasing their own gear because, Gaudet explains, “if we started losing it, to replace it, it's expensive.”

“They know everything is working now… But there's times that we have to adapt our practices, I guess you could say, to work together with the whales,” he said.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) was originally supposed to have requirements for whale-safe gear by the 2022 fishing season and then delayed it to 2023 due to COVID-19. The pandemic prevented harvesters from adequately testing gear, said the department in 2022. In a new statement to Canada’s National Observer, the department said it is “currently finalizing details about lower-strength fishing gear for 2024.”

Ropeless gear is an expense few fishers can take on. A gear lending program in Atlantic Canada is making the tech more accessible for fishers, allowing them to safely fish in areas where right whales have been spotted.

The department noted the Whalesafe Gear Trials Results Symposium held by DFO in New Brunswick in September.

“The symposium provided an opportunity for research groups, fishery associations and First Nations to share and discuss the results of their fishing gear trials using on-demand and lower breaking-strength fishing gear,” said the department in a statement.

“Information obtained at the symposium will help DFO identify the safest and most effective whale-safe gear options to use in each fishery.”

Right whales

Fishery closures are one of the few ways humans can act to protect the right whales, explained Sean Brillant, senior conservation biologist for marine programs at the Canadian Wildlife Federation. The whales have been listed as endangered since 2005 under the Canadian Species at Risk Act. Numbers have steadily decreased since 2011 when the population was at around 481. Now, there are approximately 340 right whales.

Entanglement is a serious problem, which can kill whales by drowning, starvation or injury, but it also affects their size and reproduction. Female whales used to reproduce every three years on average but now birth calves every 10 years or so. This is, in part, due to entanglement, as well as diminished food sources. The species are also killed by ship strikes.

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