Flowing alone the western coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Gulf of the St. Lawrence houses a booming fishery industry. Crab and lobster farmers scatter nets and traps, hoping to grab a big catch. Unfortunately crab and lobster is not all they are catching.
The North-Atlantic right whale normally lives in temperate waters just off the Atlantic coast. They travel in groups or “pods”, sticking close to the coastline. Getting its name because it used to be considered the “right whale” to hunt, the right whale is now one of the most endangered of all large whales.
The distinctive v-shaped blow of the Northern right whale stands out against the steel-blue of the sea and sky. Photo by Allan McDonald, a photo contest submission.
Climate change has altered water temperatures, forcing the right whale to move out of their its traditional ranges, venturing further and further and further north, according to Sean Brilliant, the manager of marine programs at the Canadian Wildlife Federation.
“The more we impinge on the world, the less likely the natural world will be able to adapt to whatever changes may be coming down the road,” says Sean Brilliant, the manager of marine programs at the Canadian Wildlife Federation.
There are two broad approaches humans can take to attempt to deal with climate change, says Brilliant.
One is mitigation, which involves the act of trying to reduce the change in climate. For example: reducing the use of fossil fuels and looking to increase carbon storage. This is what Rebecca Kordas, a marine conservation researcher, called for, in order to help combat the deadly conditions limpets are facing.
And then there’s adaptation. This involves allowing animals the space to adapt to the climate change effects impacting their ecosystem.
For instance, the biggest threats to right whales are being hit by ships and getting tangled in fishing gear, said Brilliant.
Discarded fishing gear left in the ocean is a big cause of entanglements for many marine species, including right whales. Photo by Bailey Moreton.
Due to climate change, right whales have been forced northwards into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, a major fishing area. So the best way to protect right whales, according to Brilliant, is to manage those industries.
When right whales first appeared in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence in the summer, the Canadian government moved quickly to close the fisheries in the areas. All nets and fishing gear was to be removed from the water in the fishing areas that were closed, and boats of a certain size had speed limits imposed on them, to mitigate the risk of a deadly collision with a right whale.
On Nov. 9, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium released its 2018 report card for endangered whales.
The number of right whales had decreased from 451 to 411, according to the report.
In the last year, Canada implemented new measures to try to protect the right whale, after 12 right whales were reported dead in Canadian waters in 2017, along with another five in U.S. waters.
A graph shows a sharp increase in right whale mortalities between 2012-2017 in Canada, but none occurred in 2018. Chart from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The report points out that while there haven't been any deaths in Canadian waters this year, there were still three reported entanglements. Many cases go unreported because of the vast range these animals cover, and the marine litter they may come into contact with. As climate change continues to alter ocean temperatures, right whales will be pushed further into habitat where more and more entanglements could happen.
Brilliant said he was pleased at government policies such as the fisheries closures. They appeared to work, since no right whales were killed in Canadian waters this year.
But, current policies do not have the correct focus, says Christopher Harley, head of a research lab at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
“Part of the challenge is that we focus on short-term, easily quantified economic gains, like timber and fish harvest without considering the longer-term and not-so-easily quantified social and economic benefits of stable ecosystems and all of the useful things they provide for us,” says Christopher Harley, head of a research lab at the University of British Columbia (UBC)
Policies which have the best chances of success will focus on preserving specific kinds of species, says Harley.
“Preserving the big, habitat forming plants and animals (Douglas fir trees, tropical corals, and so on) will go a long way to protecting biodiversity in the face of other challenges,” he says. “Other consumers, like sea otters, may also help to stabilize ecosystems, although the science on this is still in development.”
The debate on how best to manage industries to protect right whales is ongoing, said Brilliant. In mid-November 2018, the federal government lifted those speed limit restrictions on boats. In theory, as the winter months approach and the water’s cool, the right whales should move south, which will lower the risk of collisions.
Imposing restrictions on the fisheries may have been a big part of what helped protect the right whale. Further steps, such as creating protected areas of ocean, is a policy which the government have turned to in recent years.
Creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)
MPAs are specific areas of marine ecosystem and coastline which are legally protected and managed by a conservation management program. MPAs are established by Fisheries and Oceans Canada under the Oceans Act. First, they establish an area of interest, evaluate that area, and then create a management plan and establishing a MPA.
Back in 2015, when Justin Trudeau was first elected, the federal government promised to protect five per cent of Canada’s oceans by 2017.
The current amount of marine and coastal areas protected by MPAs is 7.9%, according to Benoit Maynard, a spokesperson with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). This has increased from less than one per cent three years ago. By 2020, the goal is to have ten per cent of marine areas protected.
Currently, eight MPAs exist across Canada.
There are several problems connected to creating protected areas, according to Brilliant.
“These things are little bit more difficult because they take years to get into place and get established,” he says. “It’s a bit slower because of the nature of it being a spatial management opposed to working directly with the industry.”
The decision making process is often follows "a precautionary approach,” due to the lack of information absolute knowledge on the effects climate change is having on marine ecosystems and local species, says Brilliant.
“Sometimes they’re using an old-fashioned excuse, which is that we don’t see whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence so we don’t have to worry about it, instead of taking a more forward minded view,” he says.
Recent research has questioned whether Eastport MPA is achieving its conservation goals of protecting the local lobster population. Photo via Wikicommons.
But creating protected lands is delicate balance between conservation and other concerns.
“You need to make a decision that does not jeopardize future uses,” he adds. “You have to err on the side of caution.”
Acting quickly enough can be a challenge, because “sometimes we don’t notice these things until they happen,” says Brilliant. How animals adapt to the effects of climate change is unpredictable. That means in order to be able to deal with these problems, the government may have to change its approach.
“Being able to predict changes as a result of a changing climate, requires thinking ahead and predicting what it is you’ll actually see when the climate does change. Sometimes that doesn’t work but it’s going to be important for government agencies to be sensitive to what those changes are and to be nimble enough when they do detect those changes," says Brilliant.
To combat the shifting conditions, the DFO tries to create a network of protected marine areas, which share boundaries and are linked together. This, in an ideal situation, would allow for creatures who were changing their location due to climate change to pass through one MPA and into another.
“When taken together (marine protected areas) offer more protection to important aquatic species and their habitats–including their spawning, nursing and feeding grounds–than individual sites could do alone,” he explained.
Predicting how these animals will move is difficult, and predicting other effects caused by climate change is similarly challenging, says Brilliant.
“The problem with climate change is it’s happening so slowly, it’s happening in ways that we don’t notice… and it’s certainly difficult to predict,” he says. “Nonetheless, [MPAs] have mechanisms that allow them to be revaluated to determine if the space is to serve the conservation objectives that is re-established.”
The oceans are dangerous places
On the opposite side of Canada, clinging onto the rocks in B.C’s intertidal zones, sits the humble limpet.
Despite being miniscule in size, especially when compared with the right whale, limpets are key to their ecosystems. They act as ecosystem engineers. By eating the algae which grows on the rocks, it provides a home for barnacles and other small creatures to grow. This is essential work, as it allows for other species to prosper while keeping the algae in check.
But both limpets and the ecosystems they live in are under threat, according to Rebecca Kordas, a research fellow at Imperial College London. She conducted research looking into the importance of limpets in maintaining the relationships between all organisms in the intertidal ecosystem.
As the oceans warm due to climate change, algal growth increases. Unfortunately, algal growth increases due to warming temperatures.
Limpets, algae and other small species live in a delicate balance, which is being tipped due to the effects of climate change. Photo provided by Rebecca Kordas.
When temperature changes happen very quickly, it gives limpets little time to adapt to the conditions, it can have deadly results, said Kordas.
“In past years when there have been these heat waves, we have seen mass mortality events,” said says Kordas. “For example mussels, when I first started my PhD, died all along the coastline in this massive heatwave; I would suspect limpets would suffer similarly.”
Rather than emphasizing the importance of limpets in managing ecosystems, was more about the importance of salvaging biodiversity.
“Everything is connected and the community has kind of evolved over time to be dependent on each other,” said Kordas. “When you have everything there the community is much more diverse and higher functioning, but when you take just one species out, it has a huge effect.”
Looking at ecosystems as a whole is important, says Christopher Harley, who was head of the lab at the University of British Columbia (UBC) where Kordas did her limpet research.
“Researchers (and the general public) tend to consider climate change impacts on one species at a time. What will happen to polar bears? Whatwill happen to salmon?” he said. “But the answers usually involve multiple species interacting in nature, and I think that is where a lot of the interesting answers to global problems may also lie.”
Brilliant says Kordas’ research shows that the impact of human caused climate change can be devastating for marine ecosystems.
Looking to the future, Maynard says the Canadian government remains committed to reaching its 2020 target of 10 per cent of Canada’s water becoming MPAs.
It has already begun conversations with international partners on charting our course toward 2030, and setting new objectives for the next decade.
As for the right whales, they may soon be receiving some extra protection from the government.
New MPA networks are in the process of being created in five priority bioregions–which are areas categorized by their unique ecosystems in Canada’s oceans.
On June 30, 2018, in partnership with the Government of Quebec, Fisheries and Oceans Canada published the proposed Regulations for the Banc-des-Américains MPA off the coast of Gaspé, Quebec.
The waters off the Gaspé coast are home to whales and other species. Photo via Wikicommons.
This is the first project under the Canada-Quebec Collaborative Agreement to establish a network of marine protected areas in the estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence, according to Maynard.