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Endangered North Atlantic right whale spotted in Saint John Harbour


The Saint John Harbour is one of Canada’s busiest ports between container vessels, cruise ships, and other boats that frequent the area.

Wildlife is also prevalent in the Bay of Fundy, with the sight of a seal bobbing its head up and under the water seen here and there. Seeing a whale, let alone the endangered North Atlantic right whale, seems like an impossibility.

But recently the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) received an undated video showing one of the endangered whales swimming in the harbour.

“In this particular video the animal was near the Digby Ferry terminal and only a few metres off of shore,” says University of New Brunswick biological sciences professor Kim Davies. “The people who were taking the video were really astonished that that animal was there and they have a right to be as it is a very unusual event.”

Davies says the whales are making their way north to their summer feeding grounds in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence as well as the Bay of Fundy. The species is among the most endangered on the planet with approximately 350 left worldwide.

In her five years living the greater Saint John area she has never heard of any whale, let alone a right whale, being spotted that close to shore within the Saint John Harbour.

“They are one of the huge whales in the ocean,” she notes. “You might get harbour seals and harbour porpoises coming close to shore but to have an animal that big come that close to shore is a pretty unusual event.”

The sighting nearly forced fishers in the area to bring in all their lines as DFO had issued a prohibited fishing notice for the area that was slated to begin at 5 p.m. Saturday. Twenty four hours before the ban was set to begin, DFO put out a message on their social media platforms saying the temporary fishing closure had been cancelled as DFO “could not confirm the detection of a North Atlantic right whale near the Saint John Harbour, which trigged the initial announcement.”

On the provinces north shores, fishermen returned to the water Thursday following the presence of a whale in the area.

Austin Vibert is a former fisherman and now works for the company Ghost Gear Disappear Inc. He says his “ropeless” gear could ensure fishers don’t have their limited season distributed, while at the same time not posing an entanglement risk to the large marine mammals.

“When a right whale comes into a zone typically DFO shuts down the zone for 15 days and requires everyone with traditional buoy and line in the water to remove their gear until the whale leaves the area,” says Vibert. “So with this ropeless gear, all the gear is collected into one of these cages and it remains on the bottom until you sail overtop of it and lower an acoustic transducer into the water, hit release, your buoy comes to the surface, you fish it and there’s no danger for whale entanglement.”

He says fishermen are more then understanding of the reason behind the closures, but with more right whale sightings taking place over the past few years he knows a solution must be found to ensure the safety of the whales and the success of fishermen.

“Nobody wants to go out and harm a whale and they all want to go out and fish,” Vibert says. “So the only way to do both is adapt a new solution or bring in traps to shore like some fishermen chose to do and just not bother with it, but there is a partial solution and it’s only going to get better as the guys adapt to it and this is going to be a really, really good test for 18 fishermen all using it at the same time.”

In a year that has already been tough for the declining population, Oceana Canada’s campaign director, Kim Elslie, says it is important for anyone on the water to be wary of the large mammals.

“Over the winter we had several calfs that had died or were presumed dead,” she points out. “Our season in Canadian’s waters started off with an entangled whale in waters and then there was kind of a carcass, half a whale that was found off of Nova Scotia, so there is a lot of news going on with right whales right now.”

She says anyone that sees a North Atlantic right whale, be it from shore or in the ocean, should contact DFO.

CTV News reached out to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for more clarity on the situation but did not receive a response.

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