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Environmental group calls for emergency measures after entangled right whale spotted in Gulf of St. Lawrence

While efforts are underway to locate an entangled North Atlantic right whale recently spotted in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, a national environmental group says more needs to be done to protect the critically endangered mammals.

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the entangled whale, identified as a 38-year-old male named Meridian, was spotted on June 30 in the waters between Quebec's Iles-de-la-Madeleine and Miscou Island in New Brunswick.

The department says it's not clear what type of gear the whale is entangled in, or where the gear came from.

DFO says Meridian was previously spotted on Feb. 11 off the coast of Massachusetts.

Simon L'Allier, a marine mammal coordinator with the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, says this is the fifth time Meridian has become entangled --  something he says will continue to happen to all marine life as long as there is fixed fishing gear in the ocean.

"We're going to keep seeing these events happening, either in Canadian waters or U.S. waters. This is something that occurs at an approximate rate of four per year, so it's not surprising that it happened and it's going to keep happening," said L'Allier.

According to L'Allier, 83 per cent of the North Atlantic right whale population has been entangled at least once. Of those, 59 per cent have been entangled more than once.

The Sierra Club Canada Foundation is now calling for emergency measures to protect North Atlantic right whales.

According to the group, whalesafe gear was supposed to be ready for this year's fishing season. However, Canada delayed full implementation to 2023 -- five years after the mass mortality event in 2017, when 17 North Atlantic right whales died.

“With less than 350 individuals remaining, these entanglements must stop. We need greater investment and rapid deployment of gear that does not entangle whales if we want this species to survive. If not, it is very likely the North Atlantic right whale will become extinct on our watch," said L'Allier.

Following the sighting, area closures throughout the Gulf of St. Lawrence were put in place, which L'Allier says last about 15 days.

"If the whale is seen again during the 15 days, they're going to do a seasonal closure of the area," explained L'Allier. "That should be good news, but the problem is, you need to see the whale first before you can do these closures, and these whales can get entangled before we even detect them in the area."

"The other problem is that with these area closures, if it keeps happening and with climate change, they're going to keep shifting north towards the Gulf of St. Lawrence, so if we have more whales coming in the Gulf, what's that going to mean for the fishermen? Are we going to have just the whole Gulf of St. Lawrence end up being closed during the summer to protect the right whales? That would be great for the species, but then what about the fishermen and their livelihood?”

The environmental group hopes for no further delays in implementing whalesafe gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence bioregion -- something it says will make a big difference.

"The Gulf of St. Lawrence is a magnificent, shared ecosystem, home to some of the world's most iconic seascapes and fisheries and tourism industries. As the northern home to the critically endangered right whale, it is also a key test of Canada's commitment to biodiversity and protection of ocean life,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald, the national programs director for the Sierra Club Canada Foundation. “Our hope is that protecting these whales will also create momentum for restoring the Gulf as a whole.”

This is the second North Atlantic right whale entanglement reported in Canada this year. DFO says it continues to monitor for Sundog, a 14-year-old female spotted entangled on May 19, east of Gaspé, Que.

There are about 336 North Atlantic right whales in existence, many of which spend their summers feeding in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

With files from The Canadian Press.

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