I call the meeting to order.
Pursuant to the order of reference of Wednesday, June 6, 2018, this is a study on the situation of endangered whales, motion M-154.
For this meeting this evening, we have witnesses from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. We have Philippe Morel, Assistant Deputy Minister; we have Adam Burns, Acting Assistant Deputy Minister; and by video conference, we have Patrick Vincent, Regional Director General.
As well, from the Office of the Auditor General, we have back again Julie Gelfand, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and Kimberley Leach, Principal.
Welcome, everybody. I know none of you are strangers to this committee, so we'll start off with your opening statements at seven minutes or less. I don't know if you're sharing the presentation or if there's just one person doing it.
When you're ready, Adam, please go ahead.
Thank you very much, and I certainly thank you for having us here today. As you noted, I'm here with some colleagues from the department.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here today to discuss the situation of endangered whales in Canada.
As I'm sure you know, the government has been very actively engaged in implementing measures to protect whales over the last couple of years, and your work here in reviewing these measures, and what gaps may still exist, will be very valuable to us.
While we await your findings, the department continues to protect endangered whales. Just yesterday, , along with his colleague , the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change; and the Honourable , Minister of Transport, announced a suite of additional measures that will help strengthen the protection and recovery of the southern resident killer whale.
The government has made an investment of an additional $61.5 million and announced a variety of measures, including ones aimed at continuing to identify and protect new areas of habitat necessary for survival or recovery of the southern resident killer whale population, introducing important measures aimed at protecting and recovering chinook salmon stocks that are significant for the southern resident killer whales, expanding the vessel slowdowns to further reduce underwater noise, developing agreements with ferry operators and other marine industry partners to formalize current voluntary measures to reduce noise, expanding vessel monitoring systems and capabilities to develop real-time ability to avoid whale encounters, and providing funding to Ocean Wise for the development and deployment of a whale report alert system.
The government is also launching consultations with the marine industry on the development and implementation of noise management plans, advancing feasibility work on one or more southern resident killer whale sanctuaries within sub-areas of the critical habitat the whales use for foraging, and enhancing regulatory control of five key organic pollutants.
Whales in Canada face a complexity of threats, such as the availability of prey, increased noise levels from passing ships and pollution in the water. Over the past two years, the Government of Canada has made substantial investments to protect endangered and at-risk marine mammals and support their recovery. Since 2016, the government has invested $1.5 billion in Canada's oceans protection plan, $167.4 million in the whales initiative and, yesterday, $61.5 million in measures directed specifically for southern resident killer whales.
With these investments, the government has taken and will continue to take significant actions to help protect marine animals from threats related to commercial fishing and marine traffic on all three coasts. This is especially true with regard to southern resident killer whales and North Atlantic right whales.
This suite of additional measures for southern resident killer whales, such as protection and recovery of chinook salmon stocks, will be accomplished through active collaboration with U.S. partners at both federal and state levels to harmonize protection measures on both sides of the border, which is critical, given the migratory patterns of the whales.
We're also pleased that other new measures, including speed restrictions for vessels and fisheries management measures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, have been successful in reducing the risks for the endangered north Atlantic right whale population. In fact, thanks to the tremendous collaboration from the fishing and transport industries in implementing 2018 measures, there have been no observed north Atlantic right whale deaths in Canadian waters this year.
We continue to work with all involved as we review 2018 measures and improve them for 2019 based on this input and important new science advice we're expecting later this year. Just last week, and DFO staff met with representatives from Atlantic Canada's fishing industry and indigenous groups, as well as marine mammal experts, to discuss the impacts of the 2018 fisheries management measures and seek input to help inform management decisions for 2019.
I would also like to highlight that the government has also made important investments in our marine mammal response program, providing $1 million per year to the world-leading third party responder groups that are the backbone of this program. With this investment, the government is making sure that the capacity is in place within the vital network of third party responders to respond to marine mammal incidents, including whale entanglements, should they occur.
Further bolstering protections of marine mammals, recent amendments to the marine mammal regulations will provide greater protection for marine mammals, including Canada's at-risk whales.
These amendments include measures to reduce disturbance associated with vessel presence by applying minimum approach distances, which is a recovery objective for the southern resident killer whale, the St. Lawrence estuary beluga and the North Atlantic right whale.
Other added measures include mandatory reporting for accidental contact between vessels or fishing gear and marine mammals, and regulating marine mammal watching.
ln order to address the risk of entanglement with North Atlantic right whales, several fishing gear management measures were applied to fisheries with a likelihood of interactions with right whales. Measures included reducing the amount of rope floating on the surface of the water; gear marking; additional identification of buoys; increased surveillance; and the requirement to report lost gear for all fisheries, an important step to reduce the risk of ghost gear.
The department continues to foster innovation in fishing technologies and methods that would maintain an active fishing industry while also reducing the risk of whale entanglements.
We will continue to collaborate to review, assess and recommend the implementation of measures to address the threats to marine mammals.
This review put forth by the standing committee will aid us in taking stock of present measures and provide the government with a focus for future efforts.
My colleagues and I would be happy to respond to any questions you may have.
Mr. Chair, I am pleased to be here today to discuss my report on protecting marine mammals, which was tabled in Parliament on October 2. I am accompanied by Kimberley Leach, the principal responsible for this audit.
Our audit looked at what the government had done to protect marine mammals from the threats posed by marine vessels and commercial fishing. In Canada, there are over 40 species of marine mammals—such as whales, dolphins and seals—and 14 populations are on the endangered or threatened species list.
We found that Fisheries and Oceans Canada, in collaboration with Parks Canada, Transport Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada, was very slow to take action to reduce threats to marine mammals. Departments have several tools at their disposal to protect these animals. For example, they can establish protected areas, set speed limits for vessels, close or restrict fisheries and set distances for whale-watching boats.
We found that most of these tools were not used until the situation became severe. Twelve endangered North Atlantic right whales, which represent 3% of the world's remaining population, were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017. The tools that were not used include the Species at Risk Act, marine protected areas and integrated fisheries management.
For example, we found the following.
First, only four of the 14 recovery strategies required under the Species at Risk Act were completed within the act's required timelines, and no action plans were completed on time. ln 2017, only seven of 14 action plans were finalized and the rest remain incomplete.
Second, dealing with the issue of marine protected areas, we know that they are not necessarily established to protect marine mammals. In fact, only three of the 11 marine-protected areas established by Fisheries and Oceans Canada are intended to protect marine mammals. What we found was that fishing and shipping are allowed in over 80% of our marine protected areas in Canada.
Third, another tool that wasn't used was the policy on managing bycatch. Up to and including the 2017 fishing season, only eight of the 74 fish stocks that had interaction with marine mammals had management measures in place as required by the policy on managing bycatch. None of these measures included gear restrictions. ln 2018, new restrictions were placed on fishing licences.
Fourth, if we continue to look at the issue of fisheries management, we see, in the case of the southern resident killer whale, that even though prey availability for that whale was identified as a significant threat to the species for many years, Fisheries and Oceans Canada had not taken action to implement quotas on chinook salmon fishing. The department announced such measures in the 2018 fishing season, which was subsequent to our audit period.
We also found that Fisheries and Oceans Canada lacked the resources and guidance to effectively respond to distressed marine mammals. There are about 900 incidents of distressed marine mammals each year, and very few people are trained to help.
The recent measures have been reactive, limited and late. The clock could well be running out for certain species, such as the west coast's southern resident killer whale, which has been listed as an endangered species for 15 years and whose population is now down to 74 individuals. There needs to be continued action from the departments to manage threats for all marine mammals.
This concludes my opening statement. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.
Thank you very much. We're ready to take your questions.
Thank you to the witnesses for being here today. Ms. Gelfand is becoming very familiar. We've seen her on a number of occasions in different committees.
A couple of questions I want to focus on are primarily on the east coast of the country, which I'm most familiar with, being from Newfoundland and Labrador in Atlantic Canada. We've heard from an array of witnesses from the shipping industry, the fishing industry and experts in the science field and so on, and they've talked about proactive measures that are happening now to protect the right whale after a disastrous 2017. Obviously we have to do something to protect these mammals. I've heard concerns, though, not so much from the shipping community as from the fishing community.
In your statement, Mr. Burns, you said, “ln fact, thanks to the tremendous collaboration from the fishing and transport industries in implementing 2018 measures, there have been no observed North Atlantic right whale deaths in Canadian waters this year”, which is great.
However, I get a sense from the people in the fishing industry, the unions and some of the people we heard from that they don't necessarily totally agree with some of the measures the department is implementing. For instance, lobster fishermen in P.E.I. and some of the groups in Grand Manan and the Gaspé peninsula talk about how the lobster industry primarily is the coastline, and it's done in probably less than 120 feet of water. Whales, they say, don't necessarily frequent that part of the bays and so on. They say when whales are spotted 10 kilometres or 15 kilometres offshore, all of a sudden their fishing industry is closed, which is devastating for the fishermen there who are making their living from the lobster fishery.
Has the department been paying close attention to these people and their concerns? They're certainly expressing their concerns to us about whether or not that's the right thing to do.
There probably are a number of questions I could ask, but I want to get to Ms. Gelfand for a second.
In your statement, in paragraph number 2, you mentioned there are about 40 species of marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals and that 14 populations are on the endangered or threatened species list.
I just want to make this comment for the record. I can assure you that seals are not an endangered species on the east coast of Canada, particularly around Newfoundland and Labrador. I raised this issue yesterday. In fact, we need some firm action on how we're going to deal with these seals going forward, because they're doing tremendous damage. They eat chinook, and I can assure you they're eating cod as well. I just wanted to get that point in there, because we've discussed this in the Atlantic caucus and with different groups. I want to identify and flag that point.
I'm assuming your report is referencing most of the things that happened prior to 2018.
Reports from NOAA indicate the probability of extirpation for the southern resident killer whale, under current conditions, which would involve these conditions from the last 10 years, is less than 10% in the next 100 years. While other sources increase this probability marginally to account for changing variables, the consensus indicates that the southern resident killer whale population will continue to exist for generations to come.
Is it not true that a recent decision to designate the southern resident killer whale extinction as an imminent threat under the Species at Risk Act was prompted or heavily influenced by pressure from Ecojustice, and that no additional scientific research or consultation with indigenous groups on this issue was done following that communiqué from Ecojustice?
I'm actually getting this from the “Southern Resident Killer Whale: Imminent Threat Assessment”, in which paragraph 3 says, and I quote:
|| In January 2018, the ministers received a letter from EcoJustice, representing World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defence Council, Georgia Strait Alliance, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the David Suzuki Foundation
—it's publicly known that many of these organizations get funding from third parties and outside of Canada—
||asking that the Ministers recommend to the GiC an emergency order to provide for the survival and recovery of the SRKW [so it happens soon]. EcoJustice requested that the Ministers form the opinion that the species is facing imminent threats from reduced prey availability, physical and acoustic disturbance and environmental contaminants.
In paragraph 1, it also said in this report, and I quote:
||EcoJustice also provided supporting documentation in their letter to the competent ministers dated January 30, 2018. No new science advice was generated specifically to inform the assessment nor was the interpretation of the information or the conclusions reached in the assessment the subject of a scientific peer-review process.
When I asked Ecojustice this morning before the committee the question about whose idea it was to actually form the opinion that there was an imminent threat, they said it was clearly the department's. The department's documents say it was clearly Ecojustice.
Could you please tell me which is the truth?
As a commentary, some of the things that we've heard so far would include the health and size of the fish coming out of DFO-sponsored hatcheries versus others. In particular, there's one on the west coast of B.C., and they claim to have a much greater success rate. It would be worth casting your net as wide as possible to make sure that as you try to rebuild those stocks, you're doing it in a way that produces the results we need, which are big fish, which is what the orcas like to eat.
On seals, we have heard a couple of times from a couple of people on a couple of different issues in this story that, “Well, we just don't want to do something because we don't know enough yet. We don't have enough data.” We heard that on vessel speed. We've heard it from you today on measures dealing with seals and sea lions. I guess the question becomes, when does the precautionary principle kick into gear?
Let's face it: It's pretty common knowledge, if you ask the indigenous people and the people who live close to some of those chinook-rearing streams, etc., that there are at least a small number of seals lying about with their mouths open, right? All we've heard is that there's a choice between a full-fledged cull, which some of the first nations talked about this morning, or at least targeted harassment to get rid of the ones that are causing the majority of the damage.
Is there a point at which you would apply the precautionary principle in the absence of the concrete or total surety of scientific data, which is always impossible to get? When would you do that? When would you make a move to do something about the seals?
If strange is required, I'm your man.
Thank you very much, Chair. That's a fine job.
I also want to say thank you to our panellists who are here today.
I'll come to Ms. Gelfand later, but first I want to reference your speech.
You say, “For example, they can establish protected areas, set speed limits for vessels, close or restrict fisheries, and set distances for whale-watching boats.” All of that is a multi-departmental disciplinary action, obviously.
Mr. Burns, can I get you to comment on some of this stuff? With regard to some of the measures, I'm familiar with the speed limit for vessels. To a certain extent, I am familiar with protected fisheries. However, in the department's mind, what was the most effective tool when it comes to right whales on the east coast?
Again, I live on the Great Lakes, and I guess one of the more effective things we've done is that with the more recent announcements that have taken place there have more communications to and more education for the public. We have new systems whereby the public can actually track the work. A submersible—it's almost like a submarine—goes around doing the work. We can follow it. There's a whole bunch of things in that.
Is there any of that kind of work that's going to be coming with this? Again, I don't want to get into stuff.... I know that I keep referring to the $61 million that was announced, but I'm looking for new things that are going to take place. I think it's important for public engagement, especially for regions like mine. There's a need to understand that the west coast is part of the ecosystems that need to be cared about, just like the Great Lakes in my region are important for the people on the west coast to care about.
There have been new initiatives and some exciting components there. In fact, we partnered with the University of Michigan on a submersible that people can track and follow. Are there some new projects and things that are going to be increasing public awareness and participation in trying to improve things?
Ms. Gelfand, you've probably presumed from my line of questioning....
I appreciate Mr. Casey bringing some clarification to the issue. I don't know if it's possible, but at some point in time, I would be very curious to see, on behalf of the ratepayers and taxpayers of this country, just how much influence third party organizations sometimes have in influencing policy with the direct connections that they have. I don't know how deep the tentacles of Ecojustice and others go into departments and I'm not blaming DFO at all in any of this; I'd be very curious to see just how much influence they have through the threat of legal action and through the other types of discourse that they have, whether it's Environment Canada or Department of Fisheries and Oceans and so on. I'd be very curious to see what that is.
If that's an idea for you for a future audit, I would like to make sure that the policy-makers at the table here, regardless of their political stripe, are the ones who are dictating what the department officials should be doing.
I want to thank you all for being here today. You're all in a tough spot, and we put you in tough spots, but that's part of a robust democracy, so thank you.