Two whales suf­fered blunt trauma

Necropsy shows a third was killed by fish­ing gear

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE -

In­juries suf­fered by at least two of six North At­lantic right whales found float­ing life­less in the Gulf of St. Lawrence ap­pear to be con­sis­tent with ship strikes, marine mam­mal ex­perts say.

Tonya Wim­mer of the Marine An­i­mal Re­sponse So­ci­ety said Tues­day the pre­lim­i­nary find­ings of necrop­sies on three of the whales in­di­cate two of them sus­tained blunt trau­mas that caused ex­ten­sive bruis­ing along their sides and in­ter­nal hem­or­rhag­ing.

A third died af­ter be­com­ing snarled in fish­ing rope that wrapped around one flip­per and in­side its mouth.

She said the team of fed­eral fish­eries of­fi­cials, vet­eri­nar­i­ans and other marine ex­perts who were part of the necrop­sies in P.E.I. couldn’t yet say con­clu­sively what caused the deaths as they await re­sults from bi­o­log­i­cal test­ing on the an­i­mal’s tis­sue.

Ex­perts are set to re­lease a fi­nal re­port within the next two months.

Still, Wim­mer said the in­for­ma­tion so far seems con­sis­tent with a col­li­sion with a ves­sel of some sort — one of the most lethal haz­ards for the en­dan­gered an­i­mals.

“The an­i­mal was ob­vi­ously struck by some­thing large, what it could be, we don’t know,” she said in Halifax.

“When we’ve seen that in the past, it has been on an­i­mals where there have been ves­sel col­li­sions, but for th­ese two we don’t know for a fact be­cause no one saw th­ese an­i­mals get­ting struck.”

The six North At­lantic right whales — among the most en­dan­gered large mam­mals on Earth — were found dead and de­com­pos­ing in wa­ters north of Prince Ed­ward Is­land and south­east of Que­bec’s Gaspe Penin­sula last month.

It’s not clear whether necrop­sies will be done on the other an­i­mals since some may have dis­ap­peared.

Pierre-Yves Daoust of the At­lantic Ve­teri­nary Col­lege in P.E.I. led the necrop­sies and said they dis­cov­ered in­ter­nal hem­or­rhag­ing con­fined to the tho­racic cav­ity and some of the soft tis­sues.

“That sug­gests there may have been some ma­jor shear­ing forces that had rup­tured blood ves­sels and caused fa­tal in­ter­nal bleed­ing,” he said.

“What we saw is con­sis­tent with blunt trauma and there­fore a ship strike ... but we can never com­pletely rule out the pos­si­bil­ity of some odd changes that may have hap­pened af­ter death.”

Still, he said the lack of a con­clu­sive cause of death shouldn’t pre­vent of­fi­cials from work­ing to pre­vent fu­ture ship strikes while in­ten­si­fy­ing the re­search be­ing done on the an­i­mals, which were hunted to the brink of ex­tinc­tion decades ago. The loss of six North At­lantic right whales rep­re­sents about one per cent of the es­ti­mated 525 en­dan­gered an­i­mals now in ex­is­tence.

“We can­not wait to have an­other half dozen right whales killed ei­ther this sum­mer or next sum­mer be­fore we start ad­dress­ing this po­ten­tial cause of mor­tal­ity,” he said.

The loss of so many right whales so quickly was prob­a­bly last seen when whal­ing dec­i­mated their pop­u­la­tion in the 19th cen­tury, said Mark Baum­gart­ner at the Woods Hole Oceano­graphic In­sti­tute on Cape Cod. He also said the deaths should be a call to do more to pro­tect the an­i­mals when pos­si­ble.

Wim­mer said more needs to be done to iden­tify the whales’ mi­gra­tory routes and habi­tats so they can be pro­tected against ship traf­fic and fish­ing ac­tiv­ity. She said one of the whales – a 13-me­tre-long fe­male around 11 years old – had fish­ing line and lo­cal buoys on it, so they may be able to de­ter­mine where it trav­elled by lo­cat­ing the fish­er­man.

The other two were males, with one roughly 37 years old and 15 me­tres long and the other 14 me­tres long.

She said much is known about the North At­lantic right whales’ pres­ence in the Bay of Fundy, but there is less in­for­ma­tion about their shift to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and pos­si­bly other ar­eas.

“We have to have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how th­ese en­tan­gle­ments hap­pen, where they might hap­pen, to then hope­fully pre­vent it from hap­pen­ing,” she said. “We don’t know when and where they were harmed and that’s the hard part be­cause we need that in­for­ma­tion to go, ‘OK, here’s where we need to work and who we need to work with.”’

Gov­ern­ments took steps to pro­tect cer­tain ar­eas af­ter it be­came clear the whales tran­sited through cer­tain ar­eas on their way to feed­ing grounds off the East Coast.

The In­ter­na­tional Mar­itime Or­ga­ni­za­tion (IMO) years ago des­ig­nated the Rose­way Basin, south­west of Nova Sco­tia, as an area to be avoided to pro­tect the whales. With that, ships were urged to steer clear of an area that mea­sures 1,780 square nau­ti­cal kilo­me­tres. The ini­tia­tive came af­ter the IMO ap­proved a pro­posal by Ot­tawa in 2003 to amend ship­ping lanes and force ves­sels to di­vert sev­eral kilo­me­tres around feed­ing grounds in the Bay of Fundy.

Whale ex­perts say the mea­sures have helped pro­tect the slow, lum­ber­ing an­i­mals against strikes and build up their pop­u­la­tion.

ERIC MCCARTHY/JOUR­NAL PI­O­NEER

Marine An­i­mal Re­sponse So­ci­ety di­rec­tor Tonya Wim­mer says pre­lim­i­nary find­ings of necrop­sies on two right whales found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in­di­cate they sus­tained blunt trau­mas that caused ex­ten­sive bruis­ing along their sides and in­ter­nal hem­or­rhag­ing.

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