I call this meeting to order. Welcome to meeting number 38 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. This meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the House order of June 23, 2022.
Before we proceed, I would like to make a few comments for the benefit of the witnesses and members.
Please wait until I recognize you by name before speaking. For those participating by video conference, click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. Please mute yourself when you are not speaking. For interpretation, those on Zoom have the choice at the bottom of their screen of floor, English or French. Those in the room can use the earpiece and select the desired channel. Please address all comments through the chair. Finally, I'll remind you that screenshots and taking photos of your screen are not permitted. The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted on January 20, 2022, the committee is resuming its study of the North Atlantic right whale.
We'll now go to opening remarks. I would like to welcome our first panel of witnesses. Representing the New Brunswick Crab Processors Association, we have Gilles Thériault. Representing the Rassemblement des pêcheurs et pêcheuses des côtes des Îles, we are joined by Charles Poirier, president, and Léona Renaud, director. Appearing as an individual, we have Mr. Glen Best, fish harvester and owner of Glen and Jerry Fisheries Inc. I'm sure Mr. Best has presented to committee before.
Thank you for taking the time to appear—
Mr. Chair and committee members, thank you for inviting me to discuss the current situation regarding the status of the North Atlantic right whale as a species at risk.
My name is Gilles Thériault, and I am the president of the New Brunswick Crab Processors Association. Incidentally, I first got involved in fisheries development in Canada 50 years ago this year.
Voices: Hear, hear!
Mr. Gilles Thériault: Thank you very much.
Not to boast, but I have to tell you that I've seen it all over the years.
The appearance of North Atlantic right whales in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017 led to a major uproar, both here and elsewhere, after several unfortunate incidents that resulted in mortalities. Those incidents involved whales becoming entangled in trap lines and collisions between these marine mammals and vessels in our waterways. Six years later, we still haven't recovered. That's a really long crisis for this day and age.
No industry was harder hit or more strongly blamed than the snow crab industry, particularly by the U.S., but also around the world.
On behalf of the snow crab industry, I testified that we shifted from our initial reaction of seeing right whales as a nuisance to devoting an unprecedented level of effort to saving a species at risk. I've never seen anything like it in my career. This is being done as part of a new approach, one that favours management plans and innovative research and development programs for fishing gear modifications. The goal is co‑existence, so that fishers can continue to fish thanks to exceptional management measures put in place to protect whales.
The collaboration on this issue between processors and fishers has been unprecedented. The processors created a program called the Fisheries Improvement Program, and we launched the Fisheries Improvement Project. The fishers' associations are carrying out numerous projects to experiment with fishing gear, including one using on-demand buoy technology.
During this process, I've also observed outstanding collaboration between processors, fishers and both federal and provincial departments. Our objectives are to establish annual fishing plans and to facilitate the implementation of other important measures, such as harbour breakouts. Along the way, we have had our disagreements and many long discussions, but we have always kept our goal of co-existence in mind, to give whales as much protection as possible while allowing our snow crab quotas to be captured to the extent possible. In my opinion, the work isn't over and the battle hasn't been won.
I have to tell you that I'm pinning a lot of hopes on on-demand buoy technology, more commonly known as ropeless fishing. I think that fishers have put so much effort into developing this fishing technique that they have a head start on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. DFO has some catching up to do in terms of developing fisheries management measures using this new technology.
This year, 18 fishers used this technology, and they were able to fish in the closed areas where whales were believed to be present. For the first time, a significant amount of crab was fished commercially using this new technology. This is a major breakthrough that's creating a lot of interest in all quarters. It's a first, and in the not-so-distant future, it could change the way all trap fishing is done in closed areas, to protect species at risk like the right whale.
Our fishers are pioneering a revolutionary fishing technique that I believe will one day be used around the world.
DFO urgently needs to support the fishers' efforts by immediately implementing management measures and scientific analyses to prevent chaos at sea and expedite the growth of this new technology in as quick and orderly a manner as possible.
Thank you for listening.
My name is Charles Poirier, and I'm the president of the Rassemblement des pêcheurs et pêcheuses des côtes des Îles, or RPPCI. I'm here with Léona Renaud, the director of our organization.
RPPCI is a non-profit organization that was founded in 2015 by lobster fishers. Today, it represents more than 200 coastal fishers from the Magdalen Islands, fishing a variety of species, and it's the largest organization in Quebec.
RPPCI's mission is to promote the collective interests of coastal fishers and support their advancement. It also seeks to harness fishers' collective strengths, at both the local and national levels, and to develop partnerships and common strategies with other associations and groups to move forward on issues.
RPPCI believes that the coastal fishery is, and always will be, the fishery that is the best for the marine environment, the most sustainable and the most beneficial for the local economy.
Since it was founded, RPPCI has carried out a number of scientific projects for the advancement of the fisheries, while taking into account the climate change that affects us all and the preservation of ocean resources. RPPCI is a member of several fisheries-related committees and working groups.
Today, we want to outline our concerns about the presence of the North Atlantic right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and its impact on our fishers. We submitted a brief to the committee. I won't read out the whole thing. Right now, I want to talk about the current situation and what RPPCI is proposing.
As mentioned, RPPCI has participated in many presentations and meetings on the subject of adapting fishing gear with a view to reducing the risk of entanglement for North Atlantic right whales. Numerous discussions have also been held among fishers in the Magdalen Islands regarding the possibility of modifying their fishing gear.
No matter what species they fish, fishers on the Magdalen Islands unanimously agree that, given the ocean currents around the Magdalen Islands and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it would be unrealistic to think the types of ropes tested by lobster fishers around the Gaspé Peninsula are suitable for the ocean currents to which the Magdalen Islands are exposed. With concrete slabs already weighing 1,700 pounds, there is no question that Magdalen Islands fishers will need gear that can support at least 2,000 pounds.
RPPCI therefore proposed concrete steps that could have been taken in the spring of 2022 and that would have reduced the risk of entanglement for right whales moving around the Magdalen Islands. RPPCI is asking Fisheries and Oceans Canada to amend the grid closure protocol and the 10‑ and 20‑fathom protocol lines around the Magdalen Islands. The lines that RPPCI is proposing are shown in the table attached to our brief.
Furthermore, given that the Magdalen Islands sector is part of the right whales' transit corridor in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, RPPCI is proposing to use its boat RPPCI to detect and monitor whales as they move through the waters around the Magdalen Islands, especially in fishing area 22, where Magdalen Islands lobster fishers are concentrated.
When a whale is detected in area 22 at a depth of 20 fathoms or less, RPPCI is willing to send its boat and its captain to monitor the whale until it leaves the sector. However, if the whale remains in area 22 for more than 48 hours, RPPCI agrees to an “active” closure, where certain grids would be closed while the whale is monitored more closely. RPPCI proposes that, before the grid closure protocol is triggered, the whale should have to be sighted in the area for two consecutive days before the closure and the closure should not last more than 48 hours.
If the right whale is still in the fishing area at the end of the two-day period, RPPCI would like DFO to modify the protocol regarding the duration of the grid closure. Instead of a 14‑day closure from the outset, reduce the closure to seven days.
In conclusion, I would like to point out that the Magdalen Islands are right in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. All whales travelling through the gulf swim by the islands. Our little community is home to 325 lobster fishers and a dozen crab fishers. Lobster fishing is the biggest economic activity in the Magdalen Islands. When the lobster fishery closes, the local economy essentially shuts down. Without lobster fishing, the economy of the Magdalen Islands falls apart.
That is why we are requesting changes to the protocol. We previously asked for this in 2021, because all of the whales that enter the Gulf of St. Lawrence swim by the Magdalen Islands. That's dangerous for our community. We want to protect them, of course, but as far as we know, no whale has ever come near our sector at a depth of less than 10 fathoms.
Today was our first opportunity to present our brief to you. We want to thank those who invited us to—
Good afternoon. Thank you, Mr. Chairman and committee members, for giving me the opportunity to present before the committee today.
My brother and I are fourth-generation fishers who operate 18-foot to 65-foot fishing vessels and employ 18 crew members. The crab fishery represents approximately 85% of our revenue. As the Newfoundland snow crab fishery had a landed value of $624 million in 2021, you can appreciate how important the crab fishery is to our fishing operation as well as rural communities and Newfoundland and Labrador as a whole. Without shellfish, rural communities would not resemble what they are today, but rather struggle to survive.
I have fished for 34 years, operating out of Fogo on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. I have to say that every time I see whale, and I've seen hundreds, it's still an amazing experience. I want to see our marine ecosystem thrive while doing the least harm possible. In those 34 years, I have never seen a right whale, let alone an entanglement. Only once have I ever heard of a whale entanglement of any species in crab gear.
If you reference the interactive North Atlantic right whale map on the DFO website and select October 2015 to present, this map shows only four confirmed right whale sightings on the east and northeast coast in this time period. The clerk can forward you the link upon request. One of these sightings occurred in September while three occurred in November. During these months there is no crab or lobster fisheries taking place and indeed very little fixed gear activity of any type.
Still with no impact on right whales in these areas, we are still mandated to use new whalesafe ropes that are not proven effective, while places like Nunavut and British Columbia are exempt because they are deemed not to have whale entanglements. As harvesters we have taken measures in the past to protect whales and satisfy the MMPA rules, including rope markings to identify area and fishery in case of an entanglement, plus minimizing slack rope at the surface.
Since these measures were introduced, has there been any evidence that these fisheries from the east and northeast coast or Labrador fisheries have entangled right whales?
In regard to whalesafe rope, you have to appreciate the environment we operate in. We need to impress upon DFO that a one-size-fits-all solution doesn't work for all fisheries and regions. In the gulf, some harvesters operate single traps, which increases the density of vertical lines in the water. In Newfoundland, we use fleets of pots with about 70 pots per fleet, with one vertical line at each end, posing much less risk for these whales.
During the limited consultation last winter, fishers were informed that the 1,700-pound weak link would be implemented in all fisheries. You have to appreciate that includes a lobster fisher in two fathoms of water, crab fishery in 200 fathoms to turbot fishing on the edge of the continental shelf in depths down to 650 fathoms.
Our vessels fish in very harsh conditions starting April 1 with crab, early in the year to avoid mortality from softshell as the season progresses. With that early start comes challenging conditions from ice to heavy seas. It is not uncommon to haul gear in four- to six-metre swells. Just picture a 65-foot vessel at 150 tonnes hauling up a fleet of crab pots from 1,200 feet of water full of snow crab in four- to six-metre swells. As the vessel rises on the swells the 1,700-pound weak link will certainly break. The physics don't add up. Ropeless technology is far from proven or practical. Why are we trying to create a solution for a problem we don't have in our fishing areas in the first place?
North Atlantic right whales have been in the media often, with groups such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch advising people to avoid east coast Canadian crab and lobster. This information is not correct and portrays that all crab and lobster fisheries in eastern Canada are harmful to right whales. The department instead should be prioritizing their work in areas where there is deemed to be a problem and focus their resources there, while educating environmental groups and promoting the positive side of the crab fisheries where there are not any entanglements.
It is so easy to place blame on the fishing industry when gear seen on a whale is tangible. How much research is done on other industries to see what the effects are? Noise from busy shipping lanes, pollution and seismic activity that emits huge underwater air blasts are all concerns for fishers. Maybe you can understand why we feel unfairly targeted.
In closing, I will say no fisherman wants or can afford to lose gear. We have taken measures in the past, including biodegradable twine in crab pots, to allow escapement from ghost gear. With these regulations for implementing whalesafe rope, we are actually increasing the chance of more ghost gear and increasing the risk to the marine ecosystem, the very opposite of the goal. The department is trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist in one area, but it is actually causing a much bigger one.
The department must not forget that, with all the new rules and regulations, managing the species that live in the ocean is critically important but, in turn, managing the people who work on it and earn their livelihoods from it must not be forgotten.
Thank you. I look forward to your questions.
My questions are for Mr. Thériault.
Mr. Thériault, I congratulate you for your 50 years of involvement in the fishing industry. You look too young to have 50 years of experience. All joking side, I also want to commend you for the work you're doing with McGraw Seafood, a plant located in the riding I represent. I just want my colleagues to know that this plant is owned exclusively by the Elsipogtog First Nation. I also want to give a shout-out to Jake Augustine, the plant manager.
In my opinion, the efforts that fishers and fishing industry stakeholders have been making for the past five years are nothing short of miraculous. We both know there's room for improvement as regards the flexibility of the measures and getting the fishery more back to normal in the coming years.
Mr. Thériault, do you think it would be possible to offer a bit more flexibility in terms of the measures and the temporary and seasonal closures? Last year, the gulf fishery was almost completely closed, although most of the quotas had been caught.
Is it possible to offer flexibility while ensuring that our markets, which are very significant in the United States and around the world, are not affected?
That's a very important question, but it's also very tricky.
We always try to design management plans that will enable us to fish efficiently and capture the quotas for this type of fishery while also protecting the whales.
The current management plan doesn't prevent entanglements. There are no guarantees in that regard. I don't think it's even possible to guarantee that whales will be fully protected, short of closing down the fishery entirely, as the Monterey Bay aquarium recommends. I think that's a preposterous idea, by the way.
On the one hand, I understand where the fishers are coming from. They're always trying to find ways to make their job easier while protecting the whales. On the other hand, I also see where the Government of Canada is coming from. It's resistant to the idea of making the measures more flexible, because a whale could accidentally get entangled in ropes and die.
In other words, I understand the government's reluctance and I also understand the fishers' concerns. The fishers are very familiar with the situation, and they don't have a selfish attitude.
I don't have a ready-made answer for you, but maybe there isn't one. The fishers' argument is reasonable, and it takes the sensitive nature of the issue into account, but I understand that we need to proceed with caution.
Mr. Poirier, the Magdalen Islands area is very special, as is its economy. The socio-economic balance of the islands is directly related to the fishery, based on what you've told us. Having been there several times myself, I can confirm that. All the islanders talk about fishing. Their lives are built around lobster fishing.
I would like you to comment on what would happen if DFO decided to maintain its 2023 deadline for the implementation of gear that hasn't been tested properly or that has given inconclusive results.
In the short term, for the next fishing year, what repercussions would this have on fishers and the entire economy of the Magdalen Islands?
Let me give you some idea of how things stand. There are 325 fishers in the Magdalen Islands area. That means a lot of traffic. Because there are so many fishers, the traps are practically sitting on top of each other. Between two traps on the same line, the depth can vary by about 20 feet.
Furthermore, the sea bottom in these waters is very rocky, which makes it hard to fish. If the planned requirements are maintained and we have to use the low-breaking-strength rope that's currently being tested, our traps will stay in the water. Whales won't get entangled, but our traps will stay in the water. That will be far from acceptable from an environmental standpoint.
We have 273 traps each worth $100 to $150, so it wouldn't be a great solution from an economic standpoint either.
I myself took part in a test involving fishing gear using rope designed to break when exposed to more than 1,700 pounds of tension. Unfortunately, I don't have a very high opinion of the result. The rope broke on its own, due to the low breaking strength. It wasn't a whale that broke it, it was the weight of my boat and the sea bottom.
We would be creating an ecological problem that makes no sense. The traps left on the sea bottom will break down after a year, but until then, they'll keep catching lobster on their own. That won't be very cost-effective for Magdalen Islands fishers. It's not every day that we replace a dozen traps.
That's why we are requesting that the deadline be postponed to 2025 to give us more time. It's not because we're against the principle. Quite the contrary.
I was listening to Mr. Thériault's comments earlier about ropeless buoys. I would love for him to come see what's going on in the Magdalen Islands sector. I don't know if you know this, but speaking for myself, even if I see another fisher's buoys next to mine, our traps end up on top of each other from time to time. If we don't see where our neighbour is, we're bound to do each other harm.
It's not just a matter of one trap and one buoy. For us, it's seven traps and two buoys.
Getting back to the subject of our boat, RPPCI has acquired a scientific vessel that we use for our projects.
I should start by noting that all scientists agree that whales aren't believed to dive deeper than 20 fathoms. The Magdalen Islands is on a 20‑fathom plateau.
From time to time, a whale will come close to the islands. Whales swim at a rate of six knots, so at that speed, in 10 hours, it will be 60 miles away. It's gone. Based on the established protocol, as soon as a whale is reported, the protocol is put in place and the sector is closed after 48 hours. That gives us 48 hours to move our traps. However, after this 48‑hour period, the whale has reached another sector. That means the government is closing a sector where there aren't any whales anymore. That is why we were ready to offer our captain and our boat to escort any whale as soon as it's sighted, to make sure it doesn't get entangled in our gear and doesn't come near the islands.
If there's a whale near the islands, we're prepared to close our sector, and we'll do it gladly. But as I was explaining earlier, we're right in the middle of the gulf. All whales swim by the Magdalen Islands. If 153 have been detected, those 153 all went by the islands, because, don't forget, the islands are located in a whale transit corridor.
Whales don't stop to feed near the islands, because there is no mackerel or herring there anymore. The only species we fish now are lobster and crab. Whales aren't going to come feed on lobster in waters one fathom deep. As long as they keep going to feed in the area around the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula, they will have to swim by the Magdalen Islands. But we don't want to relive the same experience we went through two years ago.
Thank you, Chair, and thank you to the witnesses here today.
First, I want to say a big congratulations to you, Monsieur Thériault, for 50 years in the fishing industry. That is quite the accomplishment. I am certain I have a lot that I can learn from you. Perhaps we can continue the conversation after.
I do have a question. You spoke about processors, fishers and federal and provincial departments coming together to set up annual fishing plans. I want to get some clarification. Maybe I missed something, but is that you coming together, as well, to talk about the whalesafe fishing gear and the North Atlantic right whale? Are there any discussions around that?
I'm trying to understand if there has been consultation conducted that you have seen around the particulars of how we move forward, cohabitating with the North Atlantic right whale.
Yes, there's a fishing plan for every fishery. It's a yearly fishing plan. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, at the beginning of the season, will say, “Here are the regulations, the same as last year,” or “We are changing this or changing that.” That happens on a regular basis.
Since the arrival of the whales in 2017, the fishing plans and the regulations have changed substantially, and, I would argue, rightfully so, because of the presence of the right whales and because of the incidents where we had entanglements and mortalities.
I have witnessed a great effort in co-operation and collaboration to come up with the right plan, and that was more significant than I was used to, over my years. I have never seen the industry.... I was saying the same thing to the processors and the fishermen. Quite often, we tend to butt heads, but when it comes to the right whales, it's impressive to me how everybody is really working together. It's not that we agree on everything, as we are hearing today, but the effort that is being made by everybody to try to work it out is very impressive. It has led to some improvement of this fishing plan from year to year.
We need to continue to have that exchange. We need to hear from Mr. Poirier again, and also from Mr. Best and others. We need to continue to do that. We have made strides of progress, but we can't say, “Yes, we have the right solution; now everything is fine.” No, we need to keep on working and keep on making those changes.
Yes, I had the honour and privilege of working for first nations. I'm a consultant. I organized a fishermen's organization called the Maritime Fishermen's Union. I left that 35 years ago and have been doing consulting ever since. Recently, I have been focusing my efforts on the integration of first nations into the commercial fishery. I'm a strong believer in the Marshall decision and truth and reconciliation. That's very important.
Therefore, I am also quite involved with the Elsipogtog First Nation community, of which, by the way, I'm so proud. This community now has the most modern snow crab plant in Canada. We just built a $25-million snow crab plant. We're making money, and the profits are going back to the community to create jobs and so on. It's a wonderful collaboration, because the plant is located in the Acadian community. It's a great collaboration between the Acadians and Mi'kmaq. When you come to visit our plant—and you are all invited—you'll see a big sign: a collaboration between the Mi'kmaq and Acadians.
Regarding the snow crab, the Elsipogtog First Nation has its own snow crab quota and we have 35 vessels fishing. That's very important to the community. It brings in millions of dollars every year and, yes, we make sure they are consulted. I would fight tooth and nail if they weren't. The process is interesting, because it's twofold. There is a separate consultation directly with the first nations, but they're also invited to partake in the broader forums of the advisory committees and so on.
To answer your question, they are quite active in this process and, of course, very preoccupied by the whale situation, as we all are.
My last question is for Mr. Best.
First of all, I want to highlight that I'm also originally from Newfoundland. It's always nice to see fellow Newfoundlanders here, although I'm on the west coast now and that's home.
I'm wondering if you can speak to the whalesafe gear adoption fund. What are your thoughts on how we can best move forward with this funding, in order to ensure we're moving in the right direction and have the gear in place to help protect the North Atlantic right whale, while also ensuring we're not losing gear out at sea, like you spoke about?
He subbed on a committee I chaired, and he told me he would settle it here. I'm teasing.
Monsieur Thériault, it's good to see you. You've been a visionary in the east coast fishing industry for years. A lot of times, your ideology was not always appreciated by the fishers themselves.
This committee has heard extensively the common themes that everybody wants to protect the whale and everybody is aware of the consequences if we go back to a year like 2017 or even close to that. Earlier you said it would be “devastating” to the marketplace. It has become clear that one size will not fit all as the approach. The other common theme is that where fishers and whales interact, then something must give, and not all of the gulf is where fishers and whales interact.
My question goes to a statement you made in your opening comments, or maybe it was in an answer, where you referenced that DFO must accompany fishers on the road as we develop this new technology. Could you expand on that a bit more, on how DFO must accompany fishers on the journey?
Yes, absolutely. It was a very important point that I was trying to make in my remarks.
First of all, I want to be clear that the situation in Newfoundland is totally different. There are no whales there, so I totally agree with the preoccupations about putting in regulations that impact areas where there are no whales.
When I talk about ropeless, I'm talking about a fishery that is happening in the closed areas. I'm not recommending or suggesting that we have ropeless everywhere, but in those areas, at one point it was almost half or more of our fishing grounds. If you could continue to fish and protect the whales...and I'm convinced that this methodology or technique of having no ropes in the water in a closed area but still being allowed to put traps in there would be fantastic. It's happening right now.
My point was that 18 fishermen did it this year, and they were very successful. Some were able to capture their quota because they were allowed to fish in those closed areas. They actually fished in closed areas. What I'm saying right now is that we have to plan for this. We need regulations on how close to be to each other, on how many traps per boat and on whether all the fishermen are going to be allowed. We need to make sure that....
The fishermen are moving very fast. This is creating a lot of excitement. As I said, they didn't believe in it at all. Now it's the way of the future. We need to make sure that we have the proper regulations in place for fishing with this technology in those closed areas. My sense is that the department is lagging behind right now in this area.
Yes, it is from my perspective. This was really a bomb. As a country, we had to react quickly. It was uncharted territory.
I'm not criticizing the government. The government and the department have been doing a tremendous amount of work, as far as I'm concerned. We're still feeling our way through this. It doesn't mean they're right all the time, but I am not criticizing the attempts the Government of Canada has made to try to address the issue. On the contrary, I applaud it.
Having said that, we need to further our work. We need to perfect it and make sure we continue to do this. For example, there was the question of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommending that Americans stop buying snow crab and lobsters. How ridiculous is that? The government took a pretty good stand. I thought it was okay, but we need to be able to do more on that level.
We, as processors, were quite involved. I didn't get a chance to talk about this, but I'm really impressed with the fisheries improvement program we have. We were certified as an industry with MSC—Marine Stewardship Council—and because of the whale entanglement, our MSC was taken away from us. A lot of our buyers were saying that, if we are not certified MSC anymore, they're not sure they can buy our product. This is what's happening.
Now we're taking steps by including the fishermen, working with government, working with NGOs including the New England Aquarium, and working with our buyers. We've created this group on this project called the fisheries improvement project, so we can return to our MSC certification.
This is tremendous coordination, so I'm not knocking anybody. I'm just saying that this is evolving very fast. DFO needs to do more to make sure its in sync with how fast this is going in terms of ropeless technology.
I'd like to welcome our second panel of witnesses.
Representing the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, we have with us Marc Mes, director general, fleet and maritime services, Canadian Coast Guard. We have Robert Wight, director general, vessel procurement, Canadian Coast Guard. Virtually, we have Mr. Nabaa, director general, marine construction sector.
I believe Mr. Mes is going to give a statement for five minutes or less, please.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair and committee members.
My name is Marc Mes. I am the director general of fleet and maritime services at the Canadian Coast Guard. I am accompanied today by Mr. Rob Wight, our director general of vessel procurement, and by Nicholas Nabaa, director general of major marine construction at PSPC.
I am speaking to you today from the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe people.
My role at the Canadian Coast Guard is to ensure the delivery of fleet services in support of Coast Guard and government programs and to ensure the provision of services to mariners that ensure their safety and promote efficient movement of marine trade. My two colleagues are responsible for renewing the Canadian Coast Guard fleet through the national shipbuilding strategy.
The Canadian Coast Guard is pleased to be here today to speak about our efforts to support and protect the North Atlantic right whales.
As the agency mandated to ensure the safety of mariners and of the marine environment, the Canada Coast Guard cares deeply about our oceans, marine mammals, and the entire marine environment. We work closely with our Fisheries and Oceans Canada colleagues in their quest to ensure sustainable fisheries and healthy marine environments.
This is primarily achieved by the provision of on-water platforms so that key activities such as science at sea and conservation and protection can be effectively delivered through Canada's largest fleet.
Our fleet of over 120 vessels, including icebreakers, science vessels, buoy tenders and search and rescue vessels, to name a few, are mission-ready, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our fleet is the core component for the delivery of Coast Guard programs. We are working to strengthen and renew it, thanks to the national shipbuilding strategy.
At the core of our current fleet is our icebreakers. Up to 19 icebreakers operate each winter to make sure that marine traffic moves safely through ice-infested waters. These same icebreakers also facilitate access to open waters in the spring so that fisheries, such as the snow crab fisheries in Quebec and the gulf regions, can be opened as early as possible while not compromising the lives of mariners.
The criticality of these icebreakers cannot be understated. The Canadian Coast Guard works extremely closely with all of our stakeholders to meet their expectations during the winter period and in the challenging shoulder seasons. That is when there is still ice in multiple areas. At the same time, ice has cleared in other areas, and marine navigation buoys need to be placed to ensure safe navigation. All the while, the fishing industry is eager to start their season.
From a fleet assets point of view, the shoulder seasons are one of the most challenging times of the year. Coast Guard icebreakers are in high demand. Unfortunately, sometimes the demand outstrips our capacity, and difficult decisions must be made to prioritize services.
We have also started to make use of third party vessels, or what we call “spot charters”, through established standing offer contracts that allow us to draw down on these services if and when required. This allows us to supplement our fleet when demand exceeds our capacity.
As we accept our new fleet, I am pleased to report that the Canadian Coast Guard will be better placed and prepared to support the difficult shoulder seasons and to support growing stakeholder needs more broadly. This is thanks to a new class of icebreaker we are currently designing called the midshore, multi-mission ship. These smaller icebreakers will enable us to operate more effectively in shallower water.
I would also like to inform this committee of the significant contribution that the Canadian Coast Guard makes to support whale-related information sharing with mariners. The Coast Guard has created a mammal desk, one of which is at Les Escoumins at the marine communications and traffic services centre. This serves as a critical resource to provide mariners with key information such as whale location, navigation warnings, temporary speed restrictions in shipping lanes, area closures and other relevant information.
We work closely with Transport Canada, who, as the regulatory agency, ensures compliance with these navigational restrictions on vessels in an effort to protect the North Atlantic right whales from collision with vessels in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
In closing, I hope I have conveyed to you how we are working closely with our clients and partners, including our DFO colleagues, on important matters such as protecting the North Atlantic right whales and the key role of our icebreakers in supporting them.
The Canadian Coast Guard is working to ensure that our future fleet will be better placed to meet the expanding needs of our partners and clients, and we are prepared to ensure that our services continue until the new fleet arrives.
On this, I will end my remarks, Mr. Chair. We would be pleased to answer any of your questions.
I want to thank the witnesses for being here today.
First, Mr. Mes, thank you for the efforts you've been making over the past few years with regard to icebreaking. Just in front of my riding office, I can see the places where those efforts are being made, by which I mean the Baie de Caraquet and the Baie de Shippagan a little further away. Those are the places we have trouble every year, as you know. These small channels need to be cleared of ice so that our local fishers can go to sea a little earlier and prevent whales from becoming entangled in their ropes. It also ensures that there are no whales on our fishing territory when the season starts.
What steps need to be taken to charter third party vessels, as you mentioned?
As you know, Ocean Group has come to lend a hand these past few years, as has ECO Technologies, which is in our region.
What's the process for awarding these contracts?
Thank you very much for the question.
We use a bit of a tiered approach. The first thing is we always assign a light icebreaker to Shippagan and Caraquet in New Brunswick, the Acadian peninsula, which is one of those areas that the fishermen want to get out to sooner rather than later. I completely understand that.
The light icebreaker will break ice, but it is restricted, of course, by its size and its draft and will only be able to do a portion of that. Then we cascade in other resources. We'll bring in the spot charter. We'll bring in a small tug that will be able to get into some of those other areas that the light icebreaker can't get into. It too is restricted by the fact that it can only break up to 40 centimetres of ice. Then we also bring in what we call the Amphibex machine—basically an excavator with claws on it that floats on ice—which is able to then break out additional ice that the other two assets can't get to. This opens up the shipping lanes that have already been opened up by the light icebreaker and the tugs so that the fishing vessels can get out.
The last resort is to bring in our air-cushioned vehicle, our hovercraft. The hovercraft will come in and then further break any ice. We have to balance the need of the hovercraft with regard to its priority in the Restigouche River area, which is a priority, because if we don't break ice there, we then have flooding into personal properties. Once we can get the hovercraft, it will come in.
It is very much a cascading approach. Because of the icebreaking, over the last couple of years we were basically opening up the fishing harbours about a week earlier, on average, than we normally did if we didn't have this cascading process of assets.
I follow you perfectly. I think it's very important to note what you said, which is that your icebreakers can't fit into small channels like the ones leading into the Baie de Shippagan and the Baie de Caraquet. That's why, as you said, it's necessary to charter third party vessels like Ocean Group, which sends its tug.
But you also said that, unfortunately, when the ice is more than 16 inches thick, it doesn't work. We saw that this year. The tug wasn't able to get through until a few weeks later than usual, owing to the thickness of the ice.
In the same vein, you talked about the arrival of new icebreakers. Everybody is waiting for them, because they'll be able to navigate shallow waters like the channels to the Baie de Caraquet and the Baie de Shippagan.
First, do you have some idea of when those new icebreakers will be ready?
Second, what is the minimum depth in which those new vessels can operate? Will they be able to enter the Baie de Caraquet and the Baie de Shippagan?
I want to thank the representatives of the Canada Coast Guard for being here. It's always nice to have them here.
I'm going to take 30 seconds of my speaking time to thank them. My first time on a boat was when I was seven days old. In fact, it was on the Canada Coast Guard ship Montcalm, which took my parents and me from Quebec City to Isle-aux-Coudres, because the Isle-aux-Coudres ferry was out of service due to a fault with the clutch. My father was the ferry captain at the time. So the captain of the Montcalm told my father he would take us to Isle-aux-Coudres.
The ferry to Isle-aux-Coudres was out of service this morning too, and people would have loved to see a Canada Coast Guard ship sailing along Isle-aux-Coudres.
Mr. Mes, have you ever had to intervene in area 22, which lies along the Magdalen Islands, when whales were sighted? I would imagine so, but I would also like to know how many times you've had to intervene and how it went.
Could you describe the circumstances of your interventions?
There is a level of service that we have for icebreaking. We meet with industry to identify the levels of service and also to prioritize and understand the prioritization of icebreaking services.
The first priority is that any sort of distress or emergency situation takes precedence. That also includes ice jams, because of the significant impact it can have on the economy and those who live ashore.
The second priority is a service request from the ferry service in accordance with the terms of the union. That will be given priority. What I'm talking about here, of course, is the Marine Atlantic ferry from Sydney to Blanc-Sablon. In the terms of the union, it gets a priority.
Then, it's ships with vulnerable cargo. Anything that has the potential for pollution, dangerous goods, perishable goods or vessels that are vital for the survival of the community. It has to be resupply. Then it becomes marine traffic, fishing vessels, commercial ports and fishing harbour breakouts.
These priorities are agreed to with the fishing industry, as well as the levels of service in the Coast Guard's ability to respond. If a vessel breaks down, for instance, and we have to move things around, then we have to reprioritize a tasking to a higher priority based on what has been agreed with industry. The levels of service, ice conditions and traffic density also dictate how that goes.
It's been a long two and a half years with COVID. I'll be very honest with you.
If we look at, for instance, all of the icebreakers in the Arctic this season, we were able to man them all. Right now, we have sufficient crew to man our vessels on the east, west or anything that goes up into the Arctic. We have COVID and we manage with COVID. We also then, of course, have to manage with the global industry's demand and need for engineers and specific expertise.
That's the reason we focus so much on the college. We'll be having some very large graduating classes in the next couple of years that are going to really help us in identifying and filling some of these spots that we need, but also to be able to replace those who are retiring in the coming years.
For my colleagues around the table, some of the questions I'm asking are because my region is one of the ones where we cannot go out earlier because some of the ice is stuck, like I said, in the Baie de Caraquet and in the Baie de Shippegan.
My question for Mr. Mes, I think, or for Mr. Nabaa, is that each year, for the last three years.... Like I said, thank you for all the effort you're putting in place for the icebreaking issue that we are having, but each year we run like dogs chasing their tails, because some of those contracts with third parties are not signed appropriately or are not done. There are a lot of issues when it comes to the third party agreements we have with some of those companies.
Can you tell this committee if those contracts with third parties, whether it's Groupe Océan for next year, for example, or with ECO Technologies, with the “frog” as we call it here...? Can you tell us that those contracts are signed and done so those companies can go out early next season if we have an ice situation? Depending on the season, sometimes we have ice and sometimes we don't have ice, but can you guarantee us that those contracts are signed as we speak?
Regarding the hovercraft, like you said, we have one hovercraft for the region, and of course priority goes to places like Restigouche when the river overflows. Of course this needs to be done in an urgent manner, but we all know that, even if the channels are getting worked on with some of those third party agreements, we also need the hovercraft to come to open and clear some of the ice before the fishermen can safely go out to sea.
How can we say that we want to go out early when I think it's clear that we don't have the tools in front of us, even if we're making all the effort. Yes, we have tools, but if the ice is too thick and Groupe Océan cannot come, for example, if the water is too shallow, the icebreaker you're using right now cannot come.
What is the other solution, in your opinion, that we can that put in place to have an earlier season start to make sure that we don't have any entangled right whales and that they don't come early to our fishing zone?
The question is a very good one.
Fishermen want to get out in advance of the right whales and then hopefully be able to get back in before the right whales arrive so they don't get entangled in the fishing gear. Part of this is dependent very much on weather and the climate, so if ice is favourable and we can get in with the cascading resources, we do, including the hovercraft. We understand the need to get the fishermen out because of the right whales, so there is pressure upon us also to help address that as a priority.
We do have two icebreakers in central Canada, one is identified usually for the Restigouche River, but it also could be that we have to cascade in another vessel.
We do our best in moving things forward and trying to address it, but I understand fishermen want to get out and get fishing.
For the benefit of all the committee members, could you tell us whether it would be advisable to adopt an adequate and appropriate dynamic management approach with regard to right whale protection measures and fishing activities?
Would this have a positive effect on fishers' survival and on the fishing-related economy in this part of eastern Quebec?
Do you think dynamic management could give hope to fishers if we combine your coast guard services, the extremely valuable knowledge of the fishers on the ground, and DFO's interventions in terms of promoting outstanding efforts?
Could we, in the short term, make fishing safer for fishers and appropriate from an international market perspective?
Are there any other alternatives we should consider?
Do you have any advice to offer us on this subject?
Thank you. That's a very good question.
I think the first one you've already kind of identified, and that's fleet renewal and getting the fleet and the broad fleet. We're going to have more icebreakers than we currently have. We're going to have more ships than we currently have. That in itself is going to meet the ever-increasing demands of nature but also help in the delivery of our programs.
In concert with this new fleet, we've also, then, begun to look at what we call a fleet sustainability initiative. Really, it's about the people we're going to need for the larger ships, the increased number of ships. What kind of infrastructure are we going to need? What kind of training are we going to need? This is the next step that the Coast Guard is now undertaking so that we can position ourselves for the arrival of the new ships. I think that's one of the things that are critical. We're going to have more sailors. We're going to need more training at the college. We're going to have to have a different kind of infrastructure. We're going to have to have a different kind of expertise on board our ships to be able to deliver our programs differently.
Then there is the modernization of the marine navigation system, and that's the second piece. The whole world is going to digitalization. The whole world is going towards real-time sharing of information and data. That is something that the Coast Guard is also leading, in concert with our department, and it is a critical piece that we're going to need. With regard to new ships, in 10 years—if not sooner—we're going to see autonomous ships. If we don't have a digitized and modernized marine navigation system, there is a really good chance that some of these autonomous ships won't come to Canada. It's important that we position ourselves, and we are beginning to work on that digitalization and modernization of the marine navigation system and the communication with our mariners.
That concludes our rounds of questioning for today.
I want to give a big thank you to our three witnesses who appeared in our second hour and shared their knowledge with the committee on this important study.
Your time is always valuable, I know, but you're always there to appear when invited.
I will remind committee members that, on Tuesday, we will have one last meeting with our witnesses for the North Atlantic right whales study. We will finish up with half an hour of committee business to provide drafting instructions to the analysts for the report.
Just off the record, I guess.... Mr. Morrissey did mention that I was going to pay him back for something on the committee. I subbed in on the HUMA committee, which he chairs, this past week. He wouldn't even let me ask a question.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. Robert Morrissey: He exhausted his time.
The Chair: But I forgave him for it quickly.
Voices: Oh, oh!
The Chair: The meeting is adjourned.