Quebec technology to help whales stuck in fishing nets

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Entanglements in fishing gear are one of the main threats to the survival of Atlantic right whales, but a Quebec invention could reduce the risk of mortality. This is good news for Canadian fishermen, who must comply with US marine mammal protection regulations in order to maintain access to this market.

The University of Quebec at Rimouski and the Merinov applied research center, which specializes in the field of fishing, have developed a so-called “weak link” system that allows snow crab fishermen to bring up their imposing traps . But it can also cause the cable to which the trap is attached to give way, if ever a right whale were to become entangled in it.

“What’s innovative about this technology is that these weak links can withstand high tension when anglers bring up their traps, but when the whale goes to put tension on the rope when entangled, the weak link , after a few minutes, will trigger to facilitate the release of the whale. So the innovation lies in this dual behavior,” explains Jérôme Laurent, industrial researcher at Merinov.

The “prototype” in question, which required more than three years of work, has already been tested in simulations carried out in 2022. But real-life tests will be carried out over the coming weeks, as the season of the crab fishing begins in the estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Mr. Laurent hopes that these first uses will be conclusive, so as to convince Fisheries and Oceans Canada to approve the system, which could eventually be adapted for use by lobster fishermen.

American rules

It must be said that fishermen absolutely must reduce the risks that their industry represents for marine mammals in order to maintain their access to their main export market. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, fish products exported to the United States are classified according to the frequency of marine mammal bycatch.

In this context, the exporting country, in this case Canada, must demonstrate by the end of 2023 that it imposes measures to reduce these incidental catches. The challenge is major, since Canada exports more than 60% of its seafood products to the United States.

This is all the more important since the protection of North Atlantic right whales is at the heart of the rules imposed on American fishermen on the east coast. However, more and more of these whales are migrating to the Gulf of St. Lawrence to feed in the summer.

Following the death of 12 right whales in Canadian waters in 2017, the federal government decided to impose, year after year from the end of April, closures of fishing areas when the presence of a whale is confirmed in one sector. Speed ​​limits are also in effect, since collisions with boats are also a major cause of mortality for the species.

In 2022, at least two right whales were spotted entangled in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In January 2023, marine mammal rescue workers in the United States also managed to rescue an animal that had become entangled off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Mortal risk

Entanglements are a major problem for this species, which numbers about 335 individuals and is declining. Over 80% of adults show signs of entanglements, which occur mainly in lobster or crab fishing gear.

This could explain the low birth rate of this cetacean population. Researchers at the New England Aquarium believe, in fact, that it is possible, in some cases, that females that have become entangled in fishing gear are not able to reproduce because of the significant repercussions on their health.

Many females may be unable to accumulate enough fat to successfully become pregnant or carry a pregnancy to term due to possible reductions in food availability and increased effort to find food. also the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

According to the research group, the reproductive rate has declined so much in recent years that “low births each year have eliminated the ability of the population to grow and cope with human-caused mortality.”

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