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Canada Fails Right Whales
U.S. must be called on to free whales from fishing gear

By GRAEME HAMILTON
for The Telegraph Journal

   HALIFAX - Canadian scientist Moira Brown was at work in a Cape Cod research centre last Friday when the call came in that two North Atlantic right whales had been spotted in the heavily travelled bay.
   One of the whales was streaming a potentially lethal tangle of fishing gear. The rapid mobilization that followed illustrates how seriously U.S. authorities treat the endangered right whale, the rarest large whale in the world with an estimated 300 remaining.
   Within an hour boats from the U.S. Coast Guard, from the local harbour authority and two from Ms. Brown's Centre for Coastal Studies - including one specially equipped to disentangle whales - were on the scene. A helicopter carrying Massachusetts environmental officers hovered overhead as the delicate task of freeing the whale from the orange and black ropes began.
   "I was really struck with how raw this animal looked," Ms. Brown recalled this week in an interview from Cape Cod.
   'The (fishing] lines were deeply imbedded... When the lines finally popped out, there was a lot of blood in the water and tissue hanging off. This animal was suffering from having to carry this gear around."
   It was not the first time the whale - known as No.2212 by researchers - had been seen trailing its unnatural load. But unfortunately for the whale, the previous sightings were in Canadian waters. The six-year-old male was spotted four times in the Bay of Fundy last summer, but conservationists were helpless to act because they haven't got the necessary equipment.
   Even now, after two right whales and a humpback got stuck in fishing weirs off New Brunswick earlier this month, federal officials say they are having a hard time scraping together the $30,000 needed to buy disentanglement equipment for the Bay of Fundy.
   Things are no better in Newfoundland, where the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently informed Jon Lien, Canada's leading expert on freeing whales, that it could no longer fund his work. On Monday, an untrained snorkeler risked his life diving into Newfoundland's Trinity Bay to free a humpback whale from a fishing net.
   "This is a national problem," said Deborah Tobin of East Coast Ecosystems, a non-profit group that works to protect the right whales.
   "Canada needs to take better care of its whales in its own waters. This shouldn't be entirely in the hands of volunteers scrambling around trying to find equipment."
   Whales getting stuck in fishing gear is nothing new.
   Mr. Lien, a whale researcher at Memorial University in St. John's, said that at one time the Newfoundland government would simply send around a boat to harpoon whales that frequently got stuck in nets.
   But the problem has taken on new urgency in the Bay of Fundy as awareness grows about the precarious status of the right whale. The North Atlantic right whale was hunted almost to extinction before gaining international protection in 1935. It got its name from the fact that whalers considered it the "right" whale to hunt because it was found close to the coast and could be recovered easily after being harpooned because it floated.
   Sixty years of protection have yielded a painfully slow recovery, and now it faces the modern threats of shipping traffic and sophisticated fishing gear. In the summer, about half the population congregates in the Bay of Fundy to mate and feed on plankton. The deep channels they prefer happen to lie smack in the middle of the shipping lanes. Data compiled by the New England Aquarium reveal that 62 percent of the right whale population is scarred from previous contact with fishing gear.
   There are two documented deaths from entanglement in the past 10 years, and nobody knows how many other whales swam off with gear and died slowly from infection or starvation.
   "In this population, one right whale makes a difference," Ms. Brown said. "The population is just barely hanging on. If we lose one more individual each year, that's tipping it towards extinction."
   The Canadian government formed a right whale recovery team late last year, and representatives from government, conservation groups and the shipping and fishing industries are drafting a plan to help save the species. The plan is scheduled to be submitted to Fisheries Minister David Anderson by the end of the year.
   But even Jerry Conway, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' marine mammal adviser for the region, acknowledges frustration at how long it's taking for the government to act on the problem of entanglement.
   "Time is crucial for the right whale. There's less than 300 left in existence," Mr. Conway said. But he said there isn't enough money in the department's budget to act swiftly: "Sometimes we'd like to move forward at a little quicker pace, but it just takes time."
   East Coast Ecosystems is establishing a network of fishermen and whale-watching operators around the Bay of Fundy who will be able to act quickly if a whale becomes trapped. But they need about $30,000 to buy equipment such as an inflatable boat with a motor, a trailer, satellite tags, and special knives.
   Mr. Conway said he's having trouble finding the money within the department.
   "I've just about gone through all the potential resources here, and we may have to go outside and look for corporate sponsorship to help with this," he said. The story is familiar to Mr. Lien at Memorial University. He has been "wrestling" whales since 1978, but this year for the first time, he's beached.
   When fishing activity was at its peak, Mr. Lien's team was working with fishermen to free 150 humpbacks a year around theNewfoundland coast. But after the cod moatorium hit five years ago, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans withdrew its funding, arguing whales wouldn't be in danger any more.
   In recent years, Mr. Lien has been called into action about 12 times a summer, and has helped out on a volunteer basis. Now as fisheries start to reopen, he is beginning to see the problem grow, and he told DFO he can't continue to do the work out of his own pocket.
   "They're not Greenpeace's whales, they're our whales, and the responsible bodies should be doing what's required to look after them," Mr. Lien said from St. John's.
   "People care a lot more about whales in Canada than they do about fish or fishermen."
   Mr. Lien said his program cost $50,000 at its peak and far less than that would be required today.
   But Wayne Follett, DFO's acting regional director general, refused his request for funding. "We compliment you on the superb job which the Whale Research Group has done in this area in the past," Mr. Follett wrote in a June 25 letter. "While we acknowledge the fact that the program has successfully saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and saved the lives of thousands of whales, DFO is no longer in a position to provide support funding.
   "Although DFO is concerned with any whale entrapment that may occur, we regard avoidance and release as an industry responsibility."
   So now, in Newfoundland, you have someone like 28-year-old John Boddie plunging in the ocean with garden shears to cut free a humpback.
   "What a little hero," Mr. Lien commented. "But he could have been seriously hurt because he didn't know what he was doing."
   And in the Bay of Fundy, Canada is in the awkward position of having to call on American experts to free endangered right whales that become entangled in Canadian waters.
   "I think there's a tremendous effort to keep as many right whales alive as possible in the U.S. I think we still have work to do in Canada," Ms. Brown said from Cape Cod.
   Still, she remains optimistic the whales will not disappear. "These animals were the subject of the most intensive whaling that's been levelled at any species in the world," She said.
   "The fact that a few have managed to survive has always amazed me. This is a resilient species."

Graeme Hamilton is a reporter for Southam News

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