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Right whale deaths cost Gulf snow crab fishery its designation as sustainable

Last Updated Mar 20, 2018 at 1:20 pm EDT

Snow crab is unloaded in Dartmouth, N.S. on Monday, Feb. 14, 2000. An international organization has suspended a sustainability certificate for the snow crab fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence over the deaths of endangered North Atlantic right whales. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX – The Gulf of St. Lawrence’s lucrative snow crab fishery has lost its international designation as environmentally sustainable, following the deaths of more than a dozen endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The Marine Stewardship Council announced the suspension Tuesday after an expedited audit of the fishery in the southern Gulf.

The London-based organization said the fishery in four areas — designated as areas 12, 12E, 12F and 19 — no longer meets the council’s standard when it comes to endangered, threatened and protected species.

It means crabs from those areas cannot be sold as MSC-certified or bear the telltale blue MSC label, which suggests to consumers that a species has been caught in a manner that does not harm the ecosystem or other marine life.

Annie Chiasson, spokeswoman for the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, said it’s a blow to the fishery, which received the increasingly desired designation in 2012.

“We don’t panic with this news, but it’s not good news — no one wants to lose the certification,” she said from Moncton, N.B. “They have a plan and they need to make some corrections.”

She said that as a result, some crab-sellers may turn their attention to the Japanese market, which may not require the product to have the MSC certification. The season opens next month.

The council said that under the terms of the suspension, the fishery group has 90 days to submit a corrective action plan. It could then regain compliance with the MSC program, although the suspension would only be lifted after a certifier does another review.

“If the fishery client group is unable to submit a satisfactory plan within 90 days, the certifier will withdraw the fishery certificate,” the group said in a release.

There are roughly 450 right whales left in the world, and that number is declining.

There were at least 17 confirmed right whale deaths in Canada and the United States last year, with some caused by fishing gear entanglements.

“There is a collective will to make sure this is never repeated again and we are strongly advocating for effective solutions,” said Peter Norsworthy, a representative of the Affiliation of Seafood Producers Association of Nova Scotia, which co-ordinates the MSC fishery client group.

“We use MSC certification to provide assurance to buyers that the fishery meets a high bar for sustainability. We are committed to returning the fishery back to the position where it meets the MSC Standard once again.”

In January, federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc introduced new rules for the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery to reduce the amount of rope that can be left floating on the surface when crab pots are set.

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.

The minister said further measures were planned, involving both 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 in January.