Good morning, everyone. Pursuant to order of reference of Wednesday, June 6, 2018, this is a study on the situation of endangered whales, motion M-154.
I'll start off by apologizing to our witnesses who have been here waiting. We had an unexpected vote which delayed us.
With the permission of the committee, what I would like to do, instead of losing a full half-hour to the first group, is shave 15 minutes off each one. We'll go until 12:15 p.m. and then switch to the second group and go until 1 p.m.
Does anybody have a problem with that? Is that okay?
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair: Perfect.
First of all, I'd like to welcome our witnesses for today.
Mr. Ray Harris, Co-Chair of the First Nations Summit, is here in person.
By video conference, from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, we have Gabriel George, Manager of Culture and Language; and Spencer Taft, Project Manager, Cumulative Effects.
Again by video conference, we have Teresa Ryan, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Forest and Conservation Sciences, University of British Columbia, as an individual.
Welcome to all of you.
We'll start with the statements.
Mr. Harris, you're up first for seven minutes or less, please.
[Witness speaks in Hul'qumi'num
Thank you so much for inviting me to be here.
I had a wonderful flight last night and I hope to fly back soon.
We're all very concerned about the whale that we're talking about, the southern whale in our waters that we share with the Salish Sea. Most of you would have your own thoughts about the whale, but I want to give you a bit of mine and some of our people's thinking and our intimate relationship with the whale.
We have a long relationship with the whale. We have many ceremonies, traditions and customs of our people that revolve around our relationship with the whale. It's a spiritual relationship that is hard to describe. I don't want to describe it to you, but I want to let you know that we have this wonderful relationship with the whale. We have songs and dances to celebrate with the whale. We have songs and dances for when we call upon the whale to help us in times of need.
The whale is closely described by our people, as it was told to me, that at the start of creation, before the beings were set up in a hierarchy, we were similar to the whale, so similar that they still breathed air like us. They raise their young and they look after their young for generations. They have extended families that they use to look after each other, which is the same as us. They eat the same food as we do. We're so close to them in those descriptions that we're worried.
We also face the same thing as the whale. We're near extinction. We can honestly say that we know how it feels. We're expressing what the whale is expressing.
A couple of months ago, we got heartfelt messages from around the world regarding the mother whale that held on to her young for some 17 days or more. They were concerned about a loss. There were two losses recorded, but particularly, the mother whale, as our people look at it as a message that we need to share with the world. Something has gone wrong and we need to call upon each and every one of you to help us. Each and every scientist, each and every community, each and every fisherman needs to help us look after the whale, so that the whales can recover in the Salish Sea.
We're so concerned that we're making journeys like this to speak to strangers all over the world to make the effort, so that you know that we love the whale and we want to ask for your help and assistance. We can point fingers here and there and everywhere, but responsibilities have been taken by departments, like the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. They fell down on the job, in terms of the habitat and the responsibility they have for looking after the salmon in the Salish Sea. You need to know that.
We're worried about the term that's being used by Transport Canada that describes the way the oceans are now when tankers are moving here and there. I forget the term, but it includes the territory of our people.
For your information, as colonizing happened and reserves were being set up, as they hit the west coast, the tribes got small, little reserves, small, little plots of land. To justify that, they said that the tribes relied on the sea for all their needs. In fact, some of those reserves are called fishing stations, so we can access the seas and the beaches, the clam gardens. There's more reliance now on our traditional foods than ever, so we need to be mindful of that.
It's the same as the whale. You hear now and then that the whale is starving to death. Can you imagine, on the west coast of Canada, the west coast of British Columbia, that something is starving to death? It's horrible.
That's why I came here today, to talk to you and tell you about us. We're worried about the scientists. They kind of favour industry. We see there's pull and push on the scientific community, and we lose, and the whale loses.
In your deliberations, as time goes on, I beg you to be mindful of whose interest is being served by all this data, the mountains of data that are going to come at you.
The last thing I would say is that the availability of prey for the whale is of utmost concern. It will take hard decisions to satisfy that. You can satisfy it today by eliminating some of the competition the whale has for the prey, but it's a tough decision, a political decision. It's a tough one, and if you need help with that, we'll help you.
[Witness speaks in Hul'qumi'num
It's my pleasure to be here today at the behest of my nation to talk about something that's very important to our family. In our language, Tsleil-Waututh [Witness speaks in Hul'qumi'num], we call ourselves the people of the inlet, and it refers to the Burrard Inlet. Our family has been on these shores for thousands of years. My late grandfather talked about our hunting trails that today are known as Robson Street and Thurlow Street, where we used to hunt for deer.
We've seen huge impacts to our lands and to the environment. One of our [Witness speaks in Hul'qumi'num] is my [Witness speaks in Hul'qumi'num], my great, great, great-grandfather, [Witness speaks in Hul'qumi'num]. He could talk to the ones that lived in the water, to the fish, to the killer whale and to all the creatures that lived in the water. When he passed away, he was laid to rest on a little island, [Witness speaks in Hul'qumi'num]. Just across from that main village is an island. Today, they call it Boulder Island. The area I'm talking about is Belcarra. That island eventually became private and they said we had to move our [Witness speaks in Hul'qumi'num], our respected leader—we had to remove his remains from there. They paddled him to where our reserve is now [Witness speaks in Hul'qumi'num]. Two killer whales went beside the canoe and escorted him to where our reserve is—Burrard Inlet 3, Indian reserve. Then, when they brought him up the trail to our cemetery, the killer whales didn't go under. They didn't turn around. They backed out of Burrard Inlet. Our word for Burrard Inlet is [Witness speaks in Hul'qumi'num]. That's where we get our name, Tsleil-Waututh.
The elders said they never came back. For many years they didn't come into our waters. In the last 10 years or so, maybe a little more, we've had the odd sighting. When we lose important people, they seem to come in. To our people, they're a barometer of many things. The killer whales disappeared like my elder Ray just said. That's how we almost died off, and the killer whales disappeared at that time. They're starting to come back. I don't think it's a coincidence that they're coming back at a time when our voice is being heard more. When people are listening to us a little more, they're coming back again.
To us the killer whale is a barometer of the environment, of our spiritual health and our physical health. We don't separate all these things, the rocks, the plants, the animals. We consider ourselves all one part of that. It's a more holistic approach that even western education is starting to recognize and value.
So, it's up to us, and that's why I'm here today at the behest of my nation to plead with you, like our dear elder put so well, to do the best we can to protect the killer whales, to protect [Witness speaks in Hul'qumi'num], what we call it in our language, to look after them.
It means so much to our family and to our health. In our community, the languages were wiped out in one generation from the residential schools. We're working hard to bring that back. When I look at the whole history of my people, I see it all coming together through one thing, through this killer whale. It's all connected in our world view, in the way we see things and the way our old people see things.
Like my dear elder Ray had expressed, I express to you to consider qullhanumucun in your work.
I'm going to turn it over to my colleague Spencer at this time.
[Witness speaks in Hul'qumi'num]
Thank you, Gabe, for that, and thank you for touching on the relationship between the Tsleil-Waututh and the killer whales. Obviously it's a topic that warrants much further discussion and exploration, but in these time limits, this is what we'll present. I'll get right into our specific recommendations to the committee.
We have outlined four specific recommendations. They're included in the written submission, so you can follow along.
The first one is that the federal government consult and engage with indigenous groups to amend the definition of “critical habitat” under the Species at Risk Act to consider continued indigenous cultural use. We've provided an example of proposed language to that effect.
The second recommendation is that the federal government base southern resident killer whale critical habitat on pre-contact or pre-industrial environmental conditions as opposed to current environmental conditions, because we truly believe that only maintaining habitat that's currently suitable for the resident killer whales will maintain only current population trends, which we all know are quite dire.
In accordance with the first two recommendations, our third recommendation is to designate Burrard lnlet and the Fraser River estuary as critical habitat for the southern resident killer whale so that it's connected and continuous with the rest of the critical habitat in the Salish Sea.
Our fourth recommendation is really a point of support. We want to express that Tsleil-Waututh supports the additions to the southern resident killer whale critical habitat put forth in DFO's amended recovery strategy for the killer whale, which came out earlier this year.
Those are the four specific points that we wanted to recommend to the committee with respect to Tsleil-Waututh's concerns around the killer whales.
[Witness speaks in Sm'algyax]
My name is Sm'hayetsk, Dr. Teresa Ryan. I am Tsimshian, from the north coast of British Columbia. I presently live in Vancouver and am employed as a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia in forest and conservation sciences. My training is in fisheries aquatic ecology. I'm also appointed by Canada to the Pacific Salmon Commission's Joint Chinook Technical Committee. I'm the first northwest aboriginal person appointed to both of these roles.
I've had opportunities to participate in a variety of sessions for southern resident killer whales, including two out of three in the bilateral Canada DFO-U.S.A. NOAA series of workshops on prey availability for southern resident killer whales. I wasn't able to attend the third workshop because the AAROM funding was not available in the next fiscal year.
I also work at the port of Vancouver enhancing cetacean habitat and observation, ECHO, program, along with my colleague Ray Harris. I was the first nations panel chair at the Government of Canada symposium on southern resident killer whales. I've worked at UBC on the availability of prey for southern resident killer whales and at the Prince Rupert first annual whale festival, and I am on the Fisheries and Oceans Canada Pacific region indigenous and multi-stakeholder advisory committee, which is meeting at this moment.
My research interests have focused on the application of ancestral knowledge systems in resource management. I have several years of experience along Canada's west coast in fisheries—
I'm sorry. Would you like me to slow down?
I have several years of experience in fisheries and forestry resource management. I also work with the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa on ACCAE and the First Nations Advisory Committee on Species at Risk.
I prefer the term “aboriginal” versus “indigenous” because etymologically, the source of the term “aboriginal” means “from within”, which is more consistent with an aboriginal world view. The term “aboriginal” is also consistently used in Canada's legislation, including in section 35 of the Constitution, where ancestral knowledge systems are protected as aboriginal rights.
Northern and southern resident killer whales are an intrinsic component in aboriginal cultures and continue to be revered as iconic and majestic. They are part of our clans. Gispwudwada and Tsimshian are clans. We have a clan that is entirely killer whale. Our naming system has killer whales within it. It tells us the story of our relationship to killer whales and provides an identity.
They're an indicator of health for the Pacific Ocean ecosystems and provide us with an indication of our future human health.
Resident killer whales and humans rely on the same food sources—chinook and other salmon—and we are witnessing killer whales starve to death. Chinook salmon has special significance to first nations in British Columbia as a food source and as part of the legacy of first nations cultures, including their connection to killer whales.
Ancient aboriginal fishing technology, such as the use of stone tidal salmon traps, captured high volumes of fish. I'm presently working on a project to test these stone traps to see if we can use them to rebuild salmon populations. Our technology has been evidenced by archeology as existing more than 5,000 years ago. Our longevity working with these species is a record that speaks for itself.
We also made sure there was consistency in the size and abundance of resources, which was much different in the past from what it is now. We relied on large salmon, and we actually made sure that those large salmon made it up to the spawning grounds.
Some of the large salmon that killer whales depend on are the Babine stocks of the Skeena River system, the Elwha chinook of the Juan de Fuca Strait, and the Columbia River June hogs. Those are very large salmon. The Elwha stocks are in recovery after the removal of two dams. That's a very large fish that likely was a dominant source of food for southern resident killer whales. The Columbia River June hogs were extirpated because they couldn't get past the hydro power dams on the Columbia River.
In the past, our strategies incorporated allowing the largest fish and female fish to pass through to escapement, facilitating consistent quality of reproductive success for larger fish.
Today, many U.S. tribes are working to restore salmon. First nations in Canada would also like to work to restore salmon populations for a variety of reasons, including providing salmon for the resident killer whales.
I was able to participate in a technical team of scientists and review of status for southern B.C. chinook stocks. We observed that a couple of stocks indicated an unexpected status in forested areas recently disturbed by the mountain pine beetle. In our discussion, we realized that DFO did not have adequate resources to pursue a research investigation on the effects of forestry operations on watersheds.
We are keenly aware that forests are being clear-cut at exorbitant rates in many areas of the province. At present, there is an operation in Tsitika watershed on Vancouver Island that may be causing harm to Robson Bight with increased sedimentation and other impacts. Robson Bight is a belly rub peat for resident killer whales.
We know that there is also tremendous risk of oil spills. Here's an example. There are two ecotypes—those are genetically and behaviourally different groups of killer whales—known in Cook Inlet, Alaska. There is a resident pod, AB, and population of transient killer whales, AT1. Killer whales of both ecotypes died during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The AB pod is showing slow recovery but is still below their pre-spill number. The AT1 population is functionally extirpated with seven remaining individuals, including two females that are beyond reproductive capacity. That's a concern for us on this coast given the changes we see coming down the road.
When we work with government, we have opportunities to capitalize on some momentum and address those areas where we have capacity shortage. We know we want to help restore salmon, but we also want to do it in a manner that's consistent with our world view.
The government symposium on southern resident killer whales resulted in a report that lists some specific outcomes and recommendations, identifying the Fraser River as a primary source of chinook for southern resident killer whales. We know that we want to engage first nations stewardship and the annual chinook salmon assessment. We need to figure out how to get that. We need to find those mechanisms to actually build the capacity that first nations need in order to participate in a joint effort.
If anybody hasn't had a chance to get their full piece in, you can submit it in writing, and it goes into the record so we can consider that as we go forward and make recommendations.
We've been hearing from a lot of people. Although the person who put forward this motion is from the east coast, she wisely included the southern resident killer whale as part of the study because she understood this was important and there were some dangers afoot.
So far we've heard the following: The availability of chinook salmon, the primary food source, is in trouble. There's ship traffic, especially noise, and it's not so much ship strikes on the west coast, which is more of an issue on the east coast. This is what we've heard. You can correct me if I'm wrong. There are toxins in the water, and there's the impact of seals and sea lions, which have had a significant increase in population.
Have we missed anything so far? Are there other factors? Raise your hand if you have something to contribute to this question. Have we missed anything that we should be looking at?
Ray, do you want to start?
This is a bit of a touchy subject, but I'm sometimes known for being overly honest and up front. In one of my previous roles, I was in discussions with a first nations chief from Vancouver Island in which we talked about the traditional harvest of whales. They haven't harvested whales for a number of years, for a multitude of reasons, but in that conversation the chief asked me how I or my organization, as a conservation organization, would feel about their potential harvest of whales in the future.
It was a challenging question to me, but I'm going to pose to all three groups of witnesses here this morning the question of your positions on the traditional harvest of whales. I don't mean killer whales—I don't know whether anyone harvested killer whales. Have there been traditional whale harvests in any of your organizations?
The whale harvesting on the Pacific coast was done primarily by the Nuu-chah-nulth and the Haida groups. They hunted for grey whales. There isn't a group anywhere on the coast that hunted killer whales at all. There were one or two groups that might have chased them off, in river, but there was no hunting of killer whales.
To hunt for grey whales is an aboriginal right. It is still part of a cultural tradition and a source of food for communities. I participated in the Makah celebration at Neah Bay after their successful hunt in, I believe, the mid-1990s.
Yes, then, there is hunting. It is a part of traditions that were a part of the cultural world view before colonialism.
I'd like to thank all of our witnesses for being here and for providing testimony on today's topic.
We're talking about how to help these threatened and endangered whales. Specifically, on the west coast, we're talking about the southern resident killer whale. They were first listed 15 years ago. We've seen not a lot of action on behalf of the government in the last 15 years. It's now coming to a point where we have 74 resident killer whales left. They're starving. Our scientists say that food or prey and noise and pollution are the main cause.
One bit of information is that in 1997, I received a name from the Squamish Nation, Iyem Yewyews, which means “killer whale”. It's a name that I wear with pride. It's also a big responsibility because it really focuses on the work that I was doing with salmon.
The government wants to protect killer whales, but it also wants to dramatically increase oil tanker traffic in the Salish Sea, in Burrard Inlet specifically. Since our scientists have recognized noise as one key issue threatening the killer whale, and the fact that the port of Vancouver is a very busy harbour, I'm wondering if I could ask our Tsleil-Waututh representatives to talk about what impact increased tanker traffic could have on these threatened killer whales.
We'll reconvene and get started.
Before we move on, I neglected to mention the presence of Ms. Kelly Block here today, who is substituting in for one of the Conservative members, Mr. .
Welcome, it's good to see you here.
There is Jean Yip, as well, on the Liberal side, who is substituting in for Mr. .
Sorry for that. I apologize.
We'll get to our witnesses as quickly as possible.
By video conference we have Margot Venton from Ecojustice Canada.
Also by video conference, from the Prince Edward Island Fishermen's Association, we have Ian MacPherson, the Executive Director, and Melanie Griffin, Marine Biologist and Program Planner.
Here in the flesh at the meeting is O'neil Cloutier, with the Regroupement des pêcheurs professionnels du Sud de la Gaspésie.
Thank you, all, for attending in whichever manner today.
We'll go right to Mr. Cloutier for his presentation of seven minutes or fewer. I know he's distributed a document, the staff are now trying to copy it in French as well.
Please begin when you're ready, sir.
You'll be receiving a series of documents explaining lobster fishing in Gaspésie. You must know what this is about. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, there are many disparities between the different areas. Gaspésie is a special area, as may be the case elsewhere.
The first document is entitled “Lobster Fishing Profile on the Gaspé Peninsula,” which you can read in English. The document is very short. It describes our organization, the type of fishing that we do and how we coped with the closure of the lobster fishery in Gaspésie in 2018 as a result of the presence of a whale 18 kilometres from the coast.
The second document contains proposed changes. We'll discuss this matter in more detail. You should be aware that, if the measures included in the management measures for right whale protection applied in 2018 don't change, communities and fishers could suffer serious economic effects in 2019, in the event that whales are again found near the coast.
We must explain that, in 2018, at the start of the discussions between the fishers and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or the DFO, regarding the management of right whales, the fishers proposed a necessary cohabitation with the whales. We find that won't be able to absorb the costs involved in the aerial surveillance carried out by the DFO in 2018 for much longer.
The fishers should be able to help develop the measures that will protect the whales and should play a very important role in this process. To that end, we're proposing six changes.
First, the current measures focus on a single principle, which is the protection of whales. We think that a second principle must be added to improve the socio-economic situation, namely, the principle of cohabitation between right whales and populations living off the sea.
Our second proposal, explained on page 2, is the creation of an operating corridor for lobster fishers to a maximum depth of 120 feet. We'll gradually bring the traps toward the coastline and at a lower depth according to the presence of whales. In Gaspésie, the lobster fishery is extremely close to the coast, as you can see in document 1. When we finish fishing, we're stuck to the shore. When a whale is seen at a depth between 130 feet and 71 feet, the traps will be brought toward the coast at a depth of 60 feet. If a whale enters the area where the depth is between 70 feet and 40 feet, the traps will be brought toward the coast at a depth of 30 feet. If the whale enters the area where the depth is less than 40 feet, the fishers will remove their traps from the water. Lobster fishers have never had the opportunity to see a right whale up close, at least in Gaspésie, since they fish near the coast.
Our third measure is to reduce the closure duration of the dynamic area to three days if no whales are present in the area observed. When the department closes a dynamic area, the closure lasts 15 days. In our view, this is too long. In 2018, the whale that caused the closure of the fishery was 18 kilometres away from the coastline. It stayed in the area for only two days before retreating from the coast and joining its group. In a case such as this one, a 15-day closure is far too long.
Our fourth proposal is to suspend fishing in a dynamic area if three whales are present at the same time. According the measures in Canada, a dynamic area must be closed as soon as a single whale is present. In the United States, three whales need to be present. If I recall correctly, the American government asked Canada to apply the United States marine mammal protection act. As a result, why should we be more Catholic than the Pope? Why don't our measures align more closely with the United States' measures, instead of being so stringent?
Our fifth proposal is to reduce the grid size applied in the closure of dynamic areas. The grids help manage snow crabs during the moult. The grids are six nautical miles wide by ten nautical miles long. We think that the grids are much too long, since they reach the coast. When a whale is 18 kilometres off the coast, the grids close completely. This affects the coast and prevents lobster fishers from fishing. Yet the whale is 17 kilometres from the lobster fishing gear.
Our sixth and final proposal is to reduce the number of grids closed during the closure of a dynamic area. When a whale is present in one of the grids, the entire dynamic area is closed. The department closes eight grids adjacent to the grid where the whale is located, in order to give the whale sufficient space to swim. We think that the closed area, which covers about 50 square kilometres, is much too large. We're well aware that a whale that approaches the coast will return to the group. The results of the analyses carried out by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2018 are as follows. The group is based in the centre of the gulf. A few whales separate from the group to roam around, but they return to the group one or two days later.
Why should fishers be penalized so severely and for so long? You should know that, in 2018, the lobster fishers in Gaspésie were the only ones who suffered such serious consequences. They incurred operating losses of $2,774,000, which meant a negative impact in the field of about $7 million. This impact is enormous for a medium-sized fishing industry. If the whales arrive in the gulf around the third week of fishing, so around May 15, it would be catastrophic for the fishers.
I'd like to thank the committee for inviting me to appear today on the issue of protecting endangered whales.
I am a lawyer with Ecojustice Canada, and I am the Director of Ecojustice's nature program. I currently represent conservation organizations that have petitioned the government to issue an emergency order to provide immediate legal protection for endangered southern resident killer whales.
I understand that you heard about some of the specific measures identified in the emergency order petition from Christianne Wilhelmson of the Georgia Strait Alliance on Tuesday.
What I'm going to talk about today is why legally binding and enforceable measures are needed to protect critically endangered species like the southern resident killer whales. We've reached a point where the whales urgently need enforceable and enforced measures to restrict and rebuild chinook fisheries, especially in key foraging areas; to limit disturbance from vessels to ensure that whales can effectively and efficiently hunt, especially in key foraging areas; to aggressively address marine pollution, including the ongoing pollution from vessels; and to plan for and fully address the cumulative impacts of human activity in the Salish Sea before any further increases in vessel traffic are enabled through port development or export expansion.
Strong legal measures are needed today because we have failed until now to address key threats to the whales.
The southern residents were assessed as endangered in 2001. At that time, key threats that continue to be issues today were identified as the cause of decline and as barriers to recovery. These were reduced prey availability, marine pollution and physical and acoustic disturbance from vessel traffic and whale watching. KilIer whale experts confirmed these key threats in 2008 and again in 2011 in the resident killer whale recovery strategy, and then again in 2017 in the action plan.
ln 2011, the Federal Court of Appeal confirmed that the law required the government to legally protect those biological properties that make critical habitat useful for the whales: abundant and accessible chinook salmon; an acoustic environment that allows the whale to hear subtle clicks and distant calls so that they can hunt and communicate; and water free from harmful pollution.
The court also confirmed at that time that there were no laws to address ocean noise in critical habitat. There were no enforceable rules for whale watching, and there were no legal requirements to protect chinook salmon for whales.
Despite knowing about key threats for almost 20 years and being clear about regulatory gaps for almost a decade, there has been little or no action to date to address threats. The limited action that has been taken has largely been through voluntary initiatives, such as, for example, the Be Whale Wise boater education program and whale-watching guidelines. These voluntary approaches have failed to limit the whales' decline.
The emergency order petition identifies enforceable measures to address threats in the short, medium and long term. I don't have time to review it all, but I want to make four key points about the measures identified therein.
First, legally binding and enforceable protection is important for critically endangered populations. Voluntary programs and conservation agreements can play a role in species recovery. However, for species facing imminent threat of extinction, like the killer whales, there must be a regulatory backstop or enforcement mechanism. This is a population where every whale counts. There is no flexibility left in the southern resident killer whale population. They cannot survive the failure of a voluntary program.
Clear and enforced rules work to regulate conduct. As a result of mandatory vessel slowdowns, for example, on the east coast, no North Atlantic right whales were killed by vessel strikes in 2018. We need similarly strong, legally binding rules to protect the southern residents.
Second, in some cases, such as with ocean noise, an emergency order or protection under the Species at Risk Act would constitute the only regulation of an issue. Ocean noise is not currently regulated under our existing Shipping Act scheme or any other law.
Third, using the tools under SARA is faster and more flexible than the normal regulatory process.
It takes a long time to pass or amend laws, as I'm sure you know, and it takes years to develop regulation. According to the regulatory impact analysis statement, consultation on the recent amendments to the marine mammal regulations began in 2002. It took 15 years to regulate approach distances. Sadly, by the time the 200-metre approach distance was made law, our understanding of the science had evolved to show that vessels within 400 metres of whales can interfere with echolocation. We can't wait another 15 years to make that change.
SARA provides innovative tools, such as emergency orders, that enable rapid, targeted, legally enforceable protection of species and their critical habitat.
Emergency orders for specific species tailor action to that species. They are more easily changed than regulations. You already heard concerns earlier in the week that we need to take a flexible approach to addressing issues such as ocean noise, because we don't fully understand the problem and many mitigation approaches are untested. SARA's tools reflect and respond to that situation. We need to use them.
Fourth, we cannot rely on short-term fixes intended to address existing threats to address the cumulative risk of increased development in the Salish Sea. Increasing vessel traffic beyond the current level can't happen until we better understand how quiet it needs to be for whales to forage efficiently and have a regulatory system in place to ensure that we can maintain ocean noise at that level.
Sadly, we've run down the clock on this species. We are past the time for voluntary solutions. The whales need us to use the power of the law, and they need us to do that right now.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you once again to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans for the opportunity for the Prince Edward Island Fishermen's Association to present on the important topic of mitigation strategies for the North Atlantic right whale.
My name is Ian MacPherson, I am the Executive Director of the PEIFA. Today I am joined by our Marine Biologist and Program Planner, Melanie Griffin. Ms. Griffin has headed up this important file for the PEIFA and has an in-depth knowledge of our suggested strategies.
We would like to give a brief recap of what the PEIFA is advocating on this file, and discuss 12 specific recommendations we have made, not only to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, but also put forward at the recent minister's round table on North American right whales held last week in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister stated last week that we need to come up with protocols that promote a coexistence of the fishing industry and the preservation of the North Atlantic right whale population.
The PEIFA has treated this issue very seriously, as right whale deaths were reported in 2017. Our focus was to provide our members with current and factual information. In April 2017, the PEIFA formed a new North Atlantic right whale multispecies working group to focus on this issue.
Presentations to our committee have included DFO, and renowned right whale expert Dr. Moira Brown. Dr. Brown's presentation helped us better understand the behavioural characteristics of these magnificent mammals.
We would like to note that the fishing sector has been getting much of the focus in mitigation strategies. It is equally important that the shipping sector also provide solutions, as the majority of the 2017 deaths were caused by blunt force related to large vessels.
In concluding my opening remarks, I would also like to express our disappointment that the lobster industry will not be appropriately represented at the upcoming National Marine Mammal Peer Review Committee. This committee will be discussing the risk of interactions with fish gear and collisions with vessels. It is our understanding that three representatives of the snow crab industry will be in attendance.
The primary reasons given as to why we could not participate was that the committee had been pre-selected, and the meeting room was at capacity and increasing the size of the room would create logistical issues.
I will now ask Melanie Griffin to briefly cover off our 12 recommendations.
We would then be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.
Today, the closures have had little impact on the Prince Edward Island harvesters, but considering there's really only two years of historical data, the PEIFA is aware their distribution could shift based on their food source. This shift could put the whales in direct conflict with P.E.I. fishing grounds.
To monitor the impact on the industry in coastal communities, the PEIFA is preliminarily proposing the following management measure changes. Some of these have been overlapping with those of the Maritime Fishermen's Union as well.
The first one that we have is one that was mentioned by the MFU, and that is depth. To our understanding, the North Atlantic right whales have historically not been spotted in areas with less than 20 fathoms of water. The PEIFA proposes that no closure occur within 20 fathoms unless there is actually a whale spotted in the 20-fathom area of a dynamic closure zone.
Second, in terms of gear type, the PEIFA has harvesters in three different LFAs and the physical oceanography of the areas results in different gear configurations being used by different fishers. There's a document that was already passed out that lists the current standardized configuration, but what the PEIFA is proposing is that gear configuration include some options to better suit the fishing location, the limitations in that area and the physical oceanography of the area. This could include the option of weak links rather than sinking ropes. All species harvested and locations that they're being harvested from should not be painted with the same brush considering that they are all dealing with different scenarios.
Third is dynamic closures near coastal areas. The current grids being used for dynamic closures are all the same size, so this means closing large areas for one whale. While this seems fine in areas with less fishing activities, it could be modified in coastal areas where the abundance of harvesters vastly increases. If the 20-fathom exclusion zone is not an option, then the PEIFA proposes to reduce the size of the grids as they approach coastal areas as a gradient to reduce the amount of coastline affected by closures.
Fourth is the simplified reporting of marine mammals. In the past year, there were a number of different phone numbers and email addresses that needed to be used to report a marine mammal sighting. We could improve the reporting of this if it was simplified and the fishers had simply one phone number to call rather than seven.
Fifth is the snow crab opening. Currently, the snow crab fishery opens the same day for all harvesters. PEIFA proposes that this be flexible to open when it is safe for those who are ready and are clear of ice. This is a quota fishery, so the sooner fishers are on the water, the sooner they can catch their quota and be off the water prior to the arrival of the whales.
Sixth, on static and dynamic closures, the PEIFA proposes that all closures be managed through dynamic closures with no static closure zone. Alternatively, the PEIFA proposes that the static closure happen when a whale is confirmed to be entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence and not a chosen date based on historical data. In 2018, there was approximately one month of closed time in the static zone prior to the arrival of the whales. This closure should be minimized.
Seventh is the removal of traps in a dynamic area. We're proposing that this allowance be extended to 72 hours.
Eighth is the dynamic closure time. Based on the experience in 2018, the PEIFA feels the 15-day closure could be shortened to as little as five days.
Ninth is lost gear. PEIFA would like to see a mechanism to report found gear to offset the numbers presented in terms of lost gear. We run a gear retrieval program here in P.E.I., and all gear that is lost is actually partially found as well but that's not included in the reporting system.
Tenth, the PEIFA is requesting that DFO have a plan in place to promote factual information getting out to the media on what's being done in Canada.
Eleventh, 2019 will be the third year the whales are in the gulf, assuming they arrive, with mitigation measures only in place in 2018. Assuming this is an ongoing issue, the PEIFA feels flexibility needs to be built into the plan to ensure the health of the North Atlantic right whale population while minimizing the impact to the harvesters and coastal communities.
Twelfth, and finally, is the number of whales in a grid to urge a closing. We're suggesting that there be three or more whales present before a grid is closed.
I compliment both organizations from the east coast on their list of recommendations. They are reasonable recommendations based on fishing practices and activities in the area.
My first question will be for Mr. Cloutier.
Nowhere in the recommendations or your brief was there any reference to mitigating or minimizing the impact on the fishing area versus if DFO has to make a decision, and it's going to err on one side or the other. If one has the option, should precautionary decisions weigh heavily on market access and protecting market access, primarily to the key U.S. market, which is still approximately 60% of our market area, or on protecting the maximum amount of fishing area to be used by fishers?
If you would comment, Mr. Cloutier, and then I would ask Mr. MacPherson to comment as well.
We believe that both concerns are valid. The market issue is very important, but we must still have something to sell. If we can't fish, we have nothing to sell.
All the proposals submitted to the department today, but also in June when it closed the fishery, are strictly intended to allow fishing activity while protecting right whales. We're giving fishers some of the responsibility for ensuring the survival of the whales.
We still believe that it isn't necessarily fishing that poses a risk to the whale, but the way that the fishing is done. We're working a great deal with the department, as has always been the case, and with fishers to ensure that they fish in an appropriate and reasonable manner.
In terms of right whale protection, fishing in an appropriate and reasonable manner means that fishers mustn't leave excessively long lines floating on the water. You must understand that, while hunting, a whale keeps its mouth open to filter the water. If a line is floating parallel to the whale, meaning on the surface, the whale will catch the line in its mouth. However, if the line is vertical and very tight, the line will touch the whale's nose and veer to the left or right. There's much less risk in the second case.
In addition, our fishers practise line fishing, which limits the number of lines. They attach six, eight or ten traps to a single large line that lies on the seabed, rather than using one line per trap.
Thank you very much, Chair.
To start, I'm going to ask some questions of our witness from Ecojustice.
Ms. Venton, the current closure of the recreational and commercial fishery zone off the southwest coast of Vancouver Island does not follow the boundaries that were agreed upon by a number of stakeholders, including department officials, as a result of meetings in November of last year. In fact, the boundaries that are currently under closure are exactly the same boundaries that were presented by Ecojustice to the minister. It came as quite a surprise to a number of fishing organizations, DFO scientists and DFO biologists that the boundaries they recommended are not the ones that are currently being imposed.
I'm wondering whether any action, any threats of legal action or anything of that sort, was taken by Ecojustice with respect to the minister's office, resulting in Ecojustice getting exactly the boundary closures they wanted, given all the consultations that happened that suggested the boundaries should be different.
—so I have no idea what different opinions may have been put forward.
The closure areas proposed in the petition are based on scientific information presented by whale scientists. I believe the committee heard from Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, who was endorsing and supporting the petition when it was filed in January. We believe those full closures need to be put in place. They haven't been put in place as yet.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is in fact trying to run a trial on the west coast Juan de Fuca closures, in which they will compare open areas versus closed areas. As I mentioned, though, experimenting with this critically endangered population is not an appropriate thing for the government to be doing.
Basically, those full closures are what the scientists have recommended, and [Technical difficulty—Editor] is leading this policy-making decision because of the imminent threat to the killer whales.
Just to be clear, the imminent threat determination is made under the Species at Risk Act. That determination was made by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change in May. That was based on scientific assessment of the rapid decline that we've seen in the last few years and the absence of a successful birth in that population since 2015.
A couple of things to remember about the population of the whales when you're looking at the time frame you just referred to is that it starts after the removal of...the live capture of whales to put them in aquaria, which happened in the much earlier.... With the southern resident population in particular, numerous individuals were removed over a period of decades to display in aquaria. The time range that I believe you're referring to starts after the end of that period. You're starting with a diminished population.
Also, it's important to remember that when you talk about extirpation, that's when the species is gone. With a long-lived population like the southern resident killer whales, a species can be effectively extinct, unfortunately, before there are actually no whales.
That's what we saw with the killer whale populations in Alaska that are now gone. They were deemed effectively extinct, unfortunately, while there were still actually whales alive.
That's a really important thing to be aware of. During the first round of National Energy Board hearings, the board was presented with evidence produced by a collection of conservation biologists. It's an analysis called a population viability assessment, and it looked at the trajectory for population growth with different scenarios of increasing threat.
It found two really important things. First of all, it found that if the project went forward with the increased pressure from the shipping noise, which exacerbates the existing and apparently worsening situation with chinook scarcity, the population decline increased significantly. So we push the whales further toward extinction more quickly.
The other hopeful thing it showed us, however, was that if we can keep threats at bay and increase chinook, then we can actually push the population toward recovery, so that we aren't, although it seems dire, dealing with a population that can't [Technical difficulty—Editor]. In order to do that, we say we have to deal with existing threats. We have to take these urgent, quick actions to reduce the stress on the population right now. Before we consider any significant expansion of shipping traffic, we have to really understand that safe threshold, and we have to really understand what a biologically relevant amount of ocean noise is for this species, which is something we don't understand now.
We can't proceed, I say, with that project, based on the science, until we figure those pieces out and ask if it is even possible to mitigate noise, given the existing noisiness and busyness of the Salish Sea.
I honestly have no answer for why the government hasn't. I don't know why the government hasn't addressed threats to date. It is disappointing, but I think with respect to what to do now—and I am heartened by the clear interest and commitment to addressing this issue at this point—we need to look with respect at, for example, the ocean noise. We need to ask ourselves if there is a threshold for safe functioning ecosystems in the Salish Sea.
We don't have any regulation of ocean noise in Canada right now. We need to have that regulation in place to be able to cumulatively manage. I think we need to regulate shipping in the short term, obviously, reduce the speed of vessels where we can, consider the kinds of measures that are being considered right now, like lateral displacement, but longer term we need to take a more comprehensive approach. We need to regulate ocean noise.
I'm certainly heartened to see that provision has been made in the recent omnibus bill that would enable that regulation to happen. Our concern is that, as I said earlier, it could take years to get to that place of formal regulation. In the interim, we need to use those powers of the Species at Risk Act to regulate ocean noise to the degree that we can, based on our existing knowledge right now.