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NB lobster fishermen defy DFO, leave traps in despite closure for North Atlantic right whales

A federal closure of lobster fishing zones in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off New Brunswick’s Acadian Peninsula is being defended by hundreds of fishermen refusing to remove their traps.

Several fishing zones in the area were officially shut down early by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans at 5 pm Wednesday because of a North Atlantic right whale sighting.

But at a meeting in Lamèque at the time of the deadline, about 200 members of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union decided not to remove their roughly 60,000 traps in the area. However, the fishermen say they will not go out Thursday in order to give the federal agency one more chance to negotiate.

“There are still negotiations taking place behind closed doors at the federal level,” said Martin Mallet, the union’s executive director, in French, speaking with Radio-Canada.

“Within 24 hours, we hope to have a resolution to this crisis,” Mallet said, adding that he still has not heard from federal Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier since the closure was announced on Saturday, despite his requests for a meeting.

Martin Mallet, Executive Director with the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, said negotiations are ongoing with the federal government.

Martin Mallet, executive director of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, said negotiations are ongoing with the federal government. (Radio-Canada)

On Wednesday, a release from DFO said that the fishing zone closures, initially scheduled to last 10 days, would remain closed for the rest of the season.

The closure comes because of a sighting of a North Atlantic right whale off the coast at Pigeon Hill, on the northeastern end of the Acadian Peninsula, over the weekend.

Bernard Haché, who has fished from the Sainte-Marie-Saint-Raphaël wharf for 46 years, said in an interview with Radio-Canada that the closure makes no sense.

“We only have 61 days of fishing to make our year and then (Fisheries and Oceans) comes to pull the rug out from under us, that doesn’t make any sense at all,” Haché said, adding that he will not remove his traps before the end of the season.

A new map was published by DFO on Wednesday showing the closures off the Acadian Peninsula. The red zones are temporary closures, while black zones are closed for the rest of the season.

A new map was published by DFO on Wednesday showing the closures off the Acadian Peninsula. The red zones are temporary closures, while black zones are closed for the rest of the season. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Eric Mallet, the Liberal MLA for Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou, called the situation a ticking time bomb.

Serge Cormier, Liberal MP for Acadie-Bathurst, who has called for loosened right whale protection measures to help fishermen, said he feared that tensions could further escalate.

“We experienced events here in 2003 during the crab crisis. No one wants to go through that again,” Cormier said in French.

Riots broke out in Shippagan that year over a DFO decision. Four boats, a processing plant and a warehouse were all burned down.

A North Atlantic right whale and a calf.

A file photo showing a North Atlantic right whale and her calf. The zone closures off the Acadian Peninsula followed a right whale sighting over the weekend. (New England Aquarium)

Earlier in the month, Fisheries and Oceans Canada temporarily shut down part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to non-tended, fixed-gear fishing after an endangered right whale with gear spotted entangled around its mouth was northeast of New Brunswick.

At the time, federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Diane Lebouthilier said she understands closures are difficult for fishermen, but Canada has legal obligations to respect Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Conservation groups believe there are between 350 and 360 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, including fewer than 70 reproductively active females.

There have been at least four North Atlantic right whale deaths documented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, this year — all of them female.

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