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Regulations needed to protect endangered right whales: scientists

BY Alison Auld
Canadian Press
November 14/01

    HALIFAX - A federal scientist says Ottawa should consider regulations that would protect one of the world's most endangered whale species after one of the marine giants was killed in a tangle of fishing rope.
Dr. Lena Measures, a scientist with the federal Fisheries Department, says Ottawa should introduce new rules that would force fishermen to use whale-friendly nets and adapt their behaviour when they're in whale habitats.
Dr. Measures, a research scientist who specializes in animal diseases, made the comments after a rare North Atlantic right whale was spotted floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence late last month with a mass of green fishing line cinching its fins to its side.
"This death is just yet another one and indicates that perhaps we need to have some management plan to reduce mortality in Canadian waters," Dr. Measures said from her office in Mont Joli, Que., where she is writing a report on the death of the whale that is one of only 300 left in the world.
"DFO could make it a requirement that fishermen use this type of netting in areas where we know right whales occur."
Canada doesn't have any regulations related to netting that would protect the species.
A group of fishermen in the Maritimes is testing a net that is supposed to break loose if anything travels into it.
Fishermen in the Bay of Fundy have also started a sighting network with a whale research group that alerts boats in the area when whales are spotted.
Some fishermen alter their fishing practices when they know whales are around.
But many whales are still getting caught in the lethal nets that sometimes wrap so tightly around them that they can't eat or swim properly.
The adult male whale found in the gulf was last seen in June off Cape Cod, Mass., with no netting on it. It washed up on a beach on the Iles de la Madeleine about a week ago.
An international team of scientists travelled to the small island to conduct a necropsy.
The animal autopsy was only the second time since 1954 that researchers have been able to study a dead North Atlantic right whale.
Deborah Tobin of East Coast Ecosystems, a whale research group in Digby, N.S., has been working with fishermen for years and said forcing them to use more benign nets might not be the best approach.
"We have much more success working with industry rather than having government force them to change their habits," Ms. Tobin said Monday.
"Fishermen will be more likely to use the nets if they work. Simply imposing them might be counterproductive. "
Ms. Tobin, who tracks North Atlantic right whales when they travel from the southern United States into the Bay of Fundy every summer, said the U.S. has forced fishermen to use certain nets, some of which haven't worked.
Scientists are trying to trace the origins of the fishing net that killed the whale near the Iles de la Madeleine, which might help them understand where the animal was when it got caught.
Researchers are desperate to learn more about the elusive species. Their numbers have been slipping steadily over the last several decades, since they were nearly decimated in early, whale hunts.
Measures said the population was cut by about seven this year, up from a death toll of six in 1996.
Close to 30 baby calves were born off the coast of Florida earlier this, year, but several died in ship strikes one of the biggest killers of the whales.
"We felt a bit lucky this year having all the new calves, but it's sort of numbing after a while," said Ms. Tobin. "Just another one of these, horrible losses. "
Measures said the Royal Ontarion Museum in Toronto has expressed interest in obtaining the whale's bones for an exhibit it's planning or whales.

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