The early November sighting of a large pod of right whales in the Grand Manan Channel once again brought to the forefront the dilemma of protecting the whales while letting fishermen earn a living.

Lobster set day for Grand Manan fishermen was to have been Nov. 14 but a possible decision by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans to delay the season’s opening was made moot by gale force winds on that day.

On the 14th, fishermen met to learn that set day would be on the 15th, given the weather forecast of abating winds and the fact that the number of right whales had dropped from 32 on Nov. 10 to12 on Nov. 14. “They’re pretty much on the ferry route between the Wolves and the whistle [buoy],” Melanie Sonnenberg, project manager for the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association, said at the time.

She added that fishermen had agreed to maintain a distance of two kilometers from any whale, and that a phone number would be posted for fishermen on Grand Manan and Campobello to get information and also provide information on sightings.

“We’re encouraging fishermen to be especially vigilant,” Sonnenberg said.

Fishermen on both sides of the channel will tell you that the bulk of the lobsters are caught within the first two weeks of the season. So the delay of even one day can have serious consequences.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that the New Brunswick economy turns on the success of the lobster seasons,” Sonnenberg said.

She added that fishermen have been, and continue to be, “proactive” in the protection of the whales. “On the past we’ve dealt with it on our own, and we think we’ve done a pretty good job. And we’ve encouraged our fishermen to work with the whale people. But in the past our efforts have barely been acknowledged. The fact that some whales stayed behind is not that alarming to those of us in the fishery. This year the stir was caused by the visibility of the whales.”

Laurie Murison, managing director of the Grand Manan Whale & Seabird Research Station, said, “It is unusual to have so many right whales between Grand Manan and the mainland this time of year. It is not unusual, however, to still have right whales in the bay since they can remain here until as late as December, sometimes even longer. They are, however, usually in the Grand Manan Basin with a few coming into more coastal areas.”

She added, “It is always a concern at the beginning of the lobster season for this area (Lobster Areas 38 and 36) to have right whales here. Any fixed gear is potentially hazardous to right whales in that they are prone to entanglement in float and ground lines. While it is hoped that the whales will move out of the area shortly, there is always a possibility many will remain. However, some have already begun moving south and have been seen east of Portland, Maine.”

Murison concluded, “It is not an easy situation. The livelihood of many fishermen and the coastal communities they live in depends on the lobster industry. We can also not afford to lose any more right whales prematurely. What happens when the right whales leave here must also be considered in that they must travel through areas that also have fixed fishing gear.”

“We know we have to coexist with the whales,” Sonnenberg said. “We have done that, and we are doing that.”