Saving the North Atlantic Right Whale in a Changing Ocean: Gauging Scientific and Law and Policy Responses

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Species at Risk, Climate Change, Oceans, North Atlantic Right Whale, Canada


North Atlantic right whales (NARW) are one of the most endangered marine animals with a global population of ~400 individuals left. Recent climate-driven shifts in distribution have significantly increased their mortality risk from human activities. After twelve NARWs died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017 from fishing gear entanglement and ship strikes, Canada adopted measures designed to decrease overlap between these whales and relevant threats. Real-time monitoring of whale distribution combined with dynamic management of shipping corridors and fishing areas proved to be effective in reducing regional mortality to zero in 2018. Yet, this complex system was expensive to implement and caused tension with affected sectors. Following stakeholder consultations, Canada modified the system of static and dynamic measures for the 2019 season. These measures were less effective and eight observed right whale deaths triggered additional emergency responses. This paper reviews scientific and legal tools that were used to implement spatial management of NARW and marine activities between 2017 and 2019. It identifies key legislation that directs the government to protect NARW, such as the Species at Risk Act (SARA), as well as the regulatory tools under the Fisheries Act and Canada Shipping Act and discusses weaknesses in the implementation of these legal frameworks that contributed to compromised outcomes. The paper concludes with recommendations designed to promote recovery and protect endangered species that may undergo similar changes in distributions and threats under ongoing climate and environmental change. The need to strengthen the role of Canada's Species at Risk Act in future conservation efforts is highlighted, specifically the need to address the effects of climate change in recovery planning and the importance of expanding critical habitat protections.