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A right whale surfaces showing its mouth and nostrils. PHOTO: CINDY WILSON/TELEORAPH-JOURNAL

Plan on way to help whales
Waters Mufti-prong approach to focus on prevention of entangements, response efforts

JENNIFER PRITCHETT
TELEGRAPH-JOURNAL
SEPT 30/12

    The federal government is expected to release an action plan before the end of the year that will help reduce the number of North Atlantic right whales that get entangled in fishing gear.
   One of the world's most endangered whales, the species spends the warmer months - usually from June to November -in the Bay of Fundy's plentiful fishing grounds.
   Cathy Merriman, a species at risk biologist with DFO, said the department is working with fishing associations to develop the action plan to mitigate the risk.
   "The focus is prevention - let's focus on preventing them from getting entangled in the first place," she said.
   Part of the action plan will also deal with implementing effective ways to respond to entanglements after they've occurred.
   "We also need that emergency response," said Merriman.
   Though the number of right whales have risen considerably over the last decade, there are still only about 500 of them left.
   And unlike the United States, Canada doesn't have specific legislation that deals with fishing in areas where there are right whales.
   "Instead of legislation, were looking at collaborative and voluntary procedures, said Merriman.
   The biologist said the action plan will contain a multi-prong approach to mitigating the risk of gear to the whales.
    "A one-rule-fits-all doesn't actually fit," she said.
   Merriman said the current legislation in the United States is a "blanket approach" that focuses on ground lines and the lobster fishery.
    We haven't gone that way in Canada, partly because the different fisheries that may have interactions with right whales are quite varied so there isn't likely going to be one single rule; she said. S
   Scott kraus, vice-president of research for the New England Aquarium, says there's a lot of work left to be done to get the whale off the endangered list and the entanglement problem is a complicated one.
   "We're just beginning to get a handle on things that might work, but nobody really knows," he said in an earlier interview.
   Kraus, who first discovered that right whales live in the Bay of Fundy 30 years ago, estimates that at least a couple of right whales die each year from entanglements.
   Part of the problem is that there isn't a clear understanding of how the whales are getting messed up in the gear.
   The Bay of Fundy, in particular, is a challenging environment because of the tides and the depths of the water.
    "Lobster gear isn't going to act the same as it would in more shallow water, less tidal water, off the coast of Maine or even elsewhere in the Maritimes, said Merri man. "A solution that works in one place, may not work in other places."
    In lobster fishing, there's at least one vertical line that goes from a buoy at the surface to the gear at the bottom, but typically there are two with the lobster pots in between them, she explained.
   The World Wildlife Fund and the Canadian Wildlife Federation have had success with, some fishing associations in Nova Scotia to develop voluntary standard operating procedures around the placement of fishing gear that reduce death and injury to whales.
    "The fishermen are the experts on this and some work has been done to develop these voluntary procedures to set the gear in ways to minimize how much is going to float up above the bottom of the ocean," said Merriman.
   The DFO action plan will take those programs and expand them into other areas for other fisheries, she said.
   While there's little overlap in the lobster season, which runs from November to May, with right whales, which typically arrive after May, there are times when the animals are in the bay during the fishery.
   Merriman said there are safeguards in place to help protect them.
   DFO does aerial surveys at the beginning of the fishing season to determine whether there are whales in the area. There's also a program set up in partnership with area lobster fishery associations and the federal department.
"They won't set their gear (when a right whale is reported) and they inform everyone else when there's a whale seen," said Merriman.

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