I now call this meeting to order. Good afternoon.
Welcome to meeting number 32 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the House order of June 23, 2022. Members are attending in person in the room and remotely using the Zoom application.
For those participating virtually, I'd like to outline a few rules to follow.
You may speak in the official language of your choice. Interpretation services are available.
I think it's only members attending via Zoom, so I think they know how to use the Zoom features, so I won't go too much into that.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. If you are here via video conference, please click on the microphone icon to unmute yourself. For those in the room, your mike will be controlled as normal by the proceedings and verification officer.
I will remind you that all comments by members should be addressed through the chair. When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly, and when you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and a motion adopted by the committee on January 20, 2022, the committee is commencing its study on North Atlantic right whales.
With us today are witnesses from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans: Mr. Adam Burns, acting assistant deputy minister, fisheries and harbour management, and of course no stranger to the committee; and Brett Gilchrist, director, national programs, fisheries and harbour management.
Thank you for taking time to appear. You have five minutes for an opening statement when you're ready.
I would also like to welcome Mr. Bezan by Zoom; he's a new member to the committee. As well, I'd like to welcome Mr. Drouin, who is joining us in person as a substitute today.
Again, five minutes are yours.
Hello to members of the committee.
First, I should take a moment to acknowledge the very difficult situation in Atlantic Canada resulting from hurricane Fiona. The department is working diligently to respond to this crisis as quickly as possible.
As for today's topic, all whale species in Canada, including North Atlantic right whales, face threats directly attributable to human activity.
In Canada, 19 whale populations are now listed under the Species at Risk Act, of which eight are assessed as endangered.
Species like North Atlantic right whales and others listed under the Species at Risk Act face a complex and interrelated mix of threats from human activities that affect their survival and recovery. These threats include entanglement in fishing gear, disturbance from and interaction with vessels, and decreased prey availability.
Threats are becoming even more acute as a result of climate change and its impact on ocean ecosystems and whale distribution. As committee members will know, North Atlantic right whales have shifted their late spring and summer foraging grounds to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they face a greater risk of vessel strike and entanglement in fishing gear.
Over the past several years, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Transport Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Parks Canada have worked together to make targeted investments to address immediate threats facing North Atlantic right whales and other endangered whale species, including $167.4 million under the whales initiative announced in budget 2018.
The whales initiative was the the first targeted national whale fund to protect key species. It was further supported by additional funds found in the oceans protection plan and the nature legacy initiative. These investments started a shift in the way fisheries operate, with a focus on innovative tools that protect North Atlantic right whales and other species, while also demonstrating the role of fisheries in a blue economy and Canada’s leadership in sustainable seafood.
The North Atlantic right whale population is in decline and is estimated at approximately 336 animals. Over the past several years, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been working with harvesters to implement a range of measures to halt the decline of this species and in turn allow our important fisheries and fishing communities to coexist with them. Our priority is to support the recovery of this population by preventing entanglements.
To do this, we've implemented changes to the seasonal open and close dates of fisheries to avoid interactions with right whales. This includes targeted icebreaking operations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to help harvesters get out on the water as early in the spring as possible. We've also implemented one of the world’s most advanced and near-real-time area closure programs to remove fishing gear, such as lobster and snow crab gear, where and when right whales are detected in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. This includes temporary and season-long fishing area closures. These measures are supported by a comprehensive monitoring regime to detect the presence of whales in our waters, including flights, vessels and acoustic monitoring.
To reduce the threat of serious injury in the event that a whale is entangled, the department is working with the fishing industry and partners in Atlantic Canada and Quebec to develop whalesafe fishing gear. This includes systems that fish without vertical lines, which prevents whales from becoming entangled in the gear, as well as other innovations that incorporate low-breaking-strength links. These links are designed to fish under normal conditions, yet break if a large whale should become entangled. Trials of such gear have been under way over the past few years. The department’s $20-million whalesafe gear adoption fund is providing support to nearly three dozen projects this year. The expertise developed by harvesters and experts under the whalesafe gear adoption fund has been central to the development of our approach to implement requirements for whalesafe gear in commercial fisheries. An implementation is beginning in 2023, focusing on protecting whales, respecting the operational realities of the fishing industry and ensuring the safety of harvesters.
Also, since 2019 the department, through its ghost gear fund, has invested $16.7 million through contribution agreements to assist indigenous groups, fish harvesters, the aquaculture industry, non-government organizations and communities to take concrete action in the fight against ghost gear. Through budget 2022, the ghost gear fund received $10 million to continue retrieval activities, support responsible disposal and pilot new technology to reduce ghost gear.
The fishing gear reporting system was developed and launched in 2021. It allows commercial harvesters to conveniently input a description of their lost gear and its location from any online device. Canada just recently became the first country in the world to share its lost and retrieved gear reporting data through the Global Ghost Gear Initiative’s global data portal, which is the world’s largest freely available repository of ghost gear data. This again showcases Canada as a world leader in conservation strategies.
The government also continues to build the marine mammal response program, which aims to assist marine mammals, including North Atlantic right whales and sea turtles in distress. In collaboration with conservation groups and non-governmental organizations, the department supports marine mammal incident response networks in all regions through this program.
Our investments in the marine mammal response program include $4.5 million in contributions to build capacity for safe and effective marine mammal response across Canada, as well as $1 million annually in operational support for our response partners.
With our ongoing and regular engagement of harvesters, industry groups, right whale experts, our counterparts in the United States and others, we've seen positive signs. For example, there have been no reported North Atlantic right whale mortalities in Canadian waters over the past three years. At the same time, there have been new right whale entanglements identified in both Canadian and U.S. waters, including four new entanglements first observed in Canadian waters this year. I should note that until a full investigation is conducted by the department of the gear when it is retrieved, the origin of the gear cannot be determined and could therefore be of Canadian or American origin.
Fisheries management will continue to evolve and adapt to protect and conserve North Atlantic right whale populations, as well as other populations that are at risk. Recent analysis by one of our research partners, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, has estimated that our temporary closures to protect right whales have reduced the threat of entanglement by about 65% for the southern gulf snow crab fishery alone. Adding this to other measures we have implemented in this fishery, including the retrieval of lost and abandoned fishing gear, further reduces the risk of entanglement of right whales by about 82%.
Our world-class adaptive management measures, which incorporate the best available science, are developed through close collaboration between our department, the fishing industry, indigenous communities and leading scientists to protect and rebuild the endangered whale populations while upholding Canada's reputation for sustainably sourced seafood.
We recognize there's more work to be done and that it's not easy. We need to recognize the significant work and innovation that has happened to date to protect right whales by our fishing industry.
At the same time, we will only see long-term recovery of the population when there are no entanglements or deaths over multiple years. The strength in Canada's strategy to protect right whales is in our ability to adapt and evolve based on science through working with harvesters and experts.
I'm happy to take your questions.
I wish I could have been with you in person today for the start of this study, but I'm glad you're all here.
I, too, want to take a few minutes to say hello to my colleagues in the Atlantic region and Quebec who have been affected by the hurricane. Our hearts go out to them. I myself come from the Atlantic region and we were lucky in my riding, because the hurricane passed us right by. Again, our hearts go out to you.
Mr. Burns and Mr. Gilchrist, I thank you for being with us today. I have many questions, and please feel free to answer them in English or French.
As you know, right whales have been a part of my landscape since 2017. In my riding, there is a large fleet of crabbers and lobster boats. In the last few weeks, several environmental groups, one from the United States in particular, have said that our measures regarding right whales are not adequate and they were recommending outright that people no longer buy crab, lobster and other fish, I believe, from our regions.
What do you tell your fellow U.S. officials or even environmental groups about the measures we have put in place since 2017?
What are your communication channels? How do you explain to everyone how forward-thinking we are, both in government and across industry, and that we've been doubling down to put measures in place for years?
Thank you. I will respond to this one in English just so that I get it clearly stated.
We work very closely with colleagues in the U.S., as well as with various environmental groups, to make sure that Canada's measures are clearly understood. We continue to do that both here in Canada and in the United States. In particular, the consulate in Boston and the consul general there are actively involved as well, reaching out to Congress and to the U.S. Senate to make sure we are doing everything we can to ensure that our measures are well understood.
When it comes to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch findings recently, Canada worked to ensure that they had the necessary information to make a fair and balanced assessment of Canada's management regime. Unfortunately, we do not believe that they took all of that into consideration in their findings, and they did not recognize the differences between Canada's regime and that of the U.S.
However, we continue to reach out to all of those organizations to ensure that the great work that the Canadian industry—and, indeed, Canada—has done to protect North Atlantic right whales in Canada is well understood by those groups.
First of all, it's timely that we're looking at the study with our friends to the east, where hurricane Fiona recently hit, and I want to express my thoughts as somebody who was born and raised in Newfoundland and is now a proud west coaster. I am sending my thoughts out to everybody on the east coast.
With regard to the topic at hand, I want to thank the witnesses for being here today and sharing with us updates around this important topic.
I'm looking at a chart in front of me. In it, there are some numbers laid out around the mandatory reporting of lost gear to the DFO. That reporting has been implemented in all areas since 2020. I'm hoping you could help me understand some of the pieces here. I'm looking at, for example, Newfoundland and Labrador, where it says that the number of lost gear reports filed is 33. The number of gear units reported lost is 263, and the number of gear units retrieved is 181.
I'm wondering if you can highlight the process that a fisher or whoever would take to file a report, the process of reporting lost gear, and the barriers in retrieving that gear because, as you can see, the numbers don't align.
We have a tool that's available to fish harvesters electronically to allow them to easily report lost fishing gear promptly. When that report is done or submitted by a fish harvester, the department receives that report, and we process that report as soon as possible to determine if there's a retrieval activity by the department or through our partners that can happen in the near term.
As my colleague Adam Burns mentioned, we've had a ghost gear retrieval program that's been in place for the last two years. There was another announcement for $10 million to retrieve additional gear with our partners, including indigenous harvesters, commercial harvesters and experts in retrieving gear, and once those reports are submitted, we use them to retrieve gear. The challenge is that sometimes the gear can't be retrieved and sometimes it can be, and in some cases the harvesters are, in season, able to retrieve the gear themselves, so sometimes the amount of gear reported lost doesn't end up being the amount of gear that's left in the water.
Our goal is to retrieve all of that gear, of course, because lost gear—and this is something Canada has mentioned in the international community as well—is a major source of impact for marine mammals, including endangered whale species, so working with our industry to retrieve that gear is a priority.
We do have accountability at this point, but it is a relatively new program. The fact that Canada is the first one in the world to share lost gear reporting suggests that it's a developing program, and in fact we are ahead of the game.
When it comes to the reporting of lost gear, our harvesters are focused, obviously, on not losing their gear, but the reporting tool itself is relatively new, so those numbers have been increasing annually. There are incentives for harvesters to report lost fishing gear. A perfect example is market bodies like Seafood Watch and the Marine Stewardship Council. They are watching very closely what our harvesters do and taking note of lost gear reports and the impact on their bottom line, on their ability to sell their product.
The other incentives are, for example, that our fishing gear for lobster and crab is marked, so if we lose the fishing gear and someone comes across, say, an entangled whale, that gear is marked based on the fishery it came from. We want to do that because we obviously want to take note of gear that's been lost, and harvesters know that. They know the gear has been marked. They want to contribute to the lost gear reporting system. That is in particular for lobster and crab fisheries and fixed-gear fisheries like that.
It's also marked because we want to distinguish between Canadian gear and U.S. gear. It's not uncommon for whales to be entangled and to transit both borders, so we don't want to be identified as a source of gear in Canadian waters when the entanglement may have happened elsewhere.
The marking of gear, of course, is a motivating factor as well for the industry to realize they should report the loss, and we are seeing an increase in numbers in reporting. The uptake has been relatively quick, considering the program has been in place for a very short time in the fisheries world.
I too forgot to say hello to all our friends in the Magdalen Islands, in particular, who were affected by Hurricane Fiona. Our hearts go out to them, of course, and to all those in the other regions.
In the St. Lawrence River, we follow, among other things, the beluga whales, because they are also in danger of extinction. Several whales come to feed here, including rorquals and those beautiful giants, the blue whales. Most of them are now identified and tracked. We know their behaviour and most of them even have a name. We're trying to track their behaviour.
Is this an approach you use?
We met with fishermen from the Magdalen Islands. They talked to us about traceability, which would provide more predictability for fishermen.
Has this been considered?
I won't sit here and explain their finding. We disagree with it. We believe that the protections that we have in place in the snow crab and lobster fisheries in Canada are world class and do indeed achieve an absolutely high-quality level of protection of North Atlantic right whales.
It's not just me who's saying that. Our statistics, which show that we have dramatically reduced the rate of entanglement and mortality in Canadian waters, speak for themselves.
Equally, it's easy for me to sit here and say that the work that we have done is excellent, but so have other groups, like The Pew Charitable Trust that I mentioned before. Many Canadian ENGOs have also independently said that Canada's measures are indeed exceptional.
We disagree with their findings and we think that in part they have painted us with a single brush. For example, the Canadian and U.S. lobster fisheries are very different in terms of the season length. Ours is a few weeks long. The U.S. has a much longer season. The amount of gear is different by orders of magnitude. The location where the fishing occurs is largely in waters where we almost never see North Atlantic right whales. We do occasionally, so we need measures to protect them should they show up in those shallow waters.
All of those attributes are extremely different from the U.S., and we believe that had those differences been fully understood, a different outcome would have been achieved. Let me assure you that we did everything we could to ensure that they understood that. Unfortunately, I think their focus was on the attributes of the U.S. fisheries, and those appear to have been applied more broadly to us as well.
Some of your comments about the ENGOs and the Pew foundation, which you've mentioned several times now, really raise more questions about how DFO works with ENGOs. Meanwhile, we've wanted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to be working with our anglers to have a seat at the table, but they're being ignored.
I'll get into this study here. The part that we're referencing is a Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch report, of all things. What are our American colleagues are saying about it? One news site said of an American ENGO, Seafood Watch, “The California-based Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch gave a red rating to the U.S. and Canadian lobster industry, saying they aren't doing enough to protect the North Atlantic right whale”, as we've been talking about.
What concerns me always, especially about marine protected areas, is when it's politicized. We've seen it politicized on the west coast. We've seen it politicized on the east coast. What are the Americans saying about this particular report? I'm citing an article from the Spectrum News from just a few weeks ago. It says:
Maine Democrats and Republicans blasted Seafood Watch for its rating.
“Seafood Watch is misleading consumers and businesses with this designation,” Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Generations of Maine lobstermen have worked hard to protect the sustainability of the lobster fishery and they have taken unprecedented steps to protect right whales—efforts that the Federal government and now Seafood Watch have failed to recognize.”
It goes on to reflect on a Republican's opinion. Governor Paul LePage also said this in a statement: “As Governor again, I will push back at organizations falsely attacking our lobster industry as well as the Biden Administration's destructive regulatory policy aimed at destroying the livelihoods of our fishermen over the false notion they are harming whales.”
It sounds eerily similar to what's happening to our anglers on the west coast around salmon. We know they are plentiful in the water, but there are still closures that have been mandated by this Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
What do our Canadians have to say about this? I'm quoting an article called “Blaming Canada's lobster industry for North Atlantic right whales' plight unfair”, which says, “It is a plain fact that there has never been a single, documented right whale death linked to Canadian lobster gear in recent history.” This was reflected by my colleagues before.
It goes on to say, “There are several reasons why lobster fishing presents a lower risk in Canada. It's an inshore fishery conducted mostly in shallow waters of less than 20 fathoms”—a fathom is six feet, so do that math—“where the right whales are rarely observed.”
We're talking about 120 feet. You referred to that. We already know that. The whales just aren't there.
The article continues:
For more than 150 years, North America's lobster fishery has proven itself to be one of the most sustainable wild fisheries on the planet. For all of us on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border who care deeply about its future, the path forward is clear.
I'll remind the people listening today that there are people connected with these jobs that are lost a result of a poor scientific report put out by this organization. It's tens of thousands of fishing families. I'll repeat that. As the article says, “Tens of thousands of fishing families, plant workers and hundreds of coastal communities depend on setting the record straight and winning this fight.”
Lastly, it states, “Second, we need to stand up and push back on what Seafood Watch represents: activism masquerading as science.”
We just had a whole study talking about that exact thing.
The article goes on to say:
They lumped all fixed-gear fisheries into one basket, with blatant disregard of the facts and lacking peer-review validation.... Cooler heads must prevail. We need more science, and less politics; more bi-national collaboration, less finger-pointing. Ensuring a sustainable future for the right whale—and addressing the threats facing them—knows no borders and needs to be addressed bi-nationally.
I guess my question to you is this: Why would the Department of Fisheries and Oceans be working with ENGOs like the ones mentioned, and that you even referred to, rather than the anglers themselves?
There was talk earlier about all the things we needed to do to have strong enough measures to curb the whale deaths and not hurt our markets and our relationship with the Americans.
In 2018, the first year, from April 28, an entire static area was going to be closed to fishing. In 2019, the measures were relaxed and the static zone was reduced by 63%. In 2020, there was no longer a static zone, and there were dynamic zones thereafter. In 2021, there were again a few changes here and there.
What makes you say that we can't still relax the measures in a very responsible way? If my colleagues around the table would look at the briefing paper that we received yesterday from the Library of Parliament and look at the map from this year, they would see that the Gulf of St. Lawrence was virtually closed to fishing.
I know that the crab quotas have been met for the most part, but what makes it very difficult is all of this uncertainty that it creates, early on and during the season, both for the fishermen and the plant employees and the communities.
What makes you think that we couldn't relax the measures even more to give these people a bit of a break and have a somewhat more normal season, while protecting the right whales?
I would like to thank the people in the industry, the fishing groups, and all the fishermen who are listening to us right now for making superhuman efforts over the last few years to ensure the protection of whales.
I should point out that not all environmental groups are against the measures we have taken. There are a number of environmental groups in my area that are working hand in hand with the industry. We will probably have a chance to hear from them in committee. They are doing a great job.
I think everyone understands that we have to work together. Fishermen are certainly part of the solution in this regard. They can help us protect the whales, have responsible fisheries and ensure that we can continue to practise this wonderful trade in the years to come.
Mr. Burns or Mr. Gilchrist, I don't want to go back to those measures or tools that we use—we're certainly going to come back to that at some point—but one thing that will be problematic in the near future is, as you said, that we're using traps with no ropes now. It's a great tool that we have still in development. There are still some hiccups here and there, but I think we're going to get there.
However, there's the weak-rope policy that we want to put in place for the next season. I think you know—and I hope you know—that there are some groups that are testing those ropes, and almost everybody said that we're not ready for those ropes. We're not ready to use those ropes. If we use these ropes, they're going to break and we're going to have more ropes in the water. Where are you at with this situation right now?
My point of view, and the point of view of the industry and also of the environmental groups, is that we should put a pause on that and make sure we have good ropes that will not break, instead of having something that will maybe present some more entanglement and damage, and then we'll see more of what we're seeing coming from the U.S. saying that we don't have good measures in place.
What are you hearing on that, and what are your thoughts on that?