MONCTON, N.B. -- The federal fisheries minister has imposed new measures aimed at protecting North Atlantic right whales from entanglement with fishing gear.

"Protecting Canada's endangered whales from further harm is a responsibility that weighs heavily on all of us," Dominic LeBlanc said Tuesday in Moncton.

Some of the 17 confirmed right whale deaths in Canada and the United States last year were the result of fishing gear entanglements. There are roughly 450 right whales left in the world, and that number is declining.

LeBlanc said four new rules for the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery will greatly reduce the amount of rope that can be left floating on the surface when crab pots are set -- to no more than 3.7 metres.

"In addition, no rope attaching a crab trap to a primary buoy can remain floating on the surface of the water after the crab trap has been set," he said.

"We will be requiring them to add metal weights to portions of the rope to ensure that the rope is, in fact, vertical in the water and doesn't float on the surface. In the past, metres and metres of rope had been allowed to float on the surface," he said.

Other new rules will require rope and gear to be colour-coded, based on the area where they are used, and each piece of equipment must have serial numbers to identify the owner. Any lost gear must be reported, along with its last GPS location.

LeBlanc said he personally saw a significant amount of rope and gear left floating in the Gulf last year, weeks after the season had concluded. He said the department and the industry must take every possible step to retrieve that gear.

Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society said she doesn't think the rope-reduction rules will have much impact.

"To get rid of any amount of rope is a good thing, however a lot of those measures in terms of how long ropes are -- a lot of people already do. We're not looking at a great reduction overall in terms of the amount of rope," she said.

The minister said he'll soon be announcing further measures, including the number of traps to be allowed this season, and efforts to clear ice from ports so boats are able to begin their season sooner.

"If there is a way to start the season a couple of weeks early with the help of the coast guard, that will, at the back end, reduce the number of weeks that the gear will remain in the water," he said.

Wimmer said an early start to the season does have the potential to have an impact.

A temporary speed limit imposed on ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was lifted earlier this month, but LeBlanc said it will be imposed again when the whales return.

Transport Canada said there were 4,711 ships affected by the speed limit in the Gulf between Aug. 11 and Jan. 11, when the speed limit was lifted. Of those, 542 were found by the Canadian Coast Guard to be moving faster than 10 knots.

Further investigation resulted in 14 ships being fined -- all of them the minimum $6,000.

Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Centre for Biological Diversity in the United States, said slowing down ships is a proven and effective way to protect whales.

Last week, her organization launched a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service in the United States arguing it failed to prevent whales from getting trapped in fishing lines.

Last year, the Canadian government imposed a ban on volunteer efforts to rescue whales who become entangled in fishing gear, after rescuer Joe Howlett from Campobello, N.B., was killed during a rescue. He was struck by a whale just moments after setting it free.

LeBlanc said the whole issue of whale rescues is still under review, and Wimmer said she hopes the government can provide some direction soon.

In the meantime, she said it's disturbing to hear reports that scientists have not spotted any baby right whales off the southeast U.S. coast during the current calving season.

Only five births were recorded last year, the lowest since 2000, when only one newborn whale was spotted.

-- By Kevin Bissett in Fredericton.