Sev­enth dead whale found in Gulf

Deaths are a dev­as­tat­ing blow to the frag­ile pop­u­la­tion

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - THE ISLAND - COURT BY ALI­SON AULD

More re­search is needed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to de­ter­mine if it has be­come an emerg­ing habi­tat for en­dan­gered North At­lantic right whales, ex­perts said Fri­day af­ter the badly de­com­posed re­mains of a sev­enth whale were found float­ing in roughly the same area as six oth­ers.

The over­turned male was seen bob­bing on the sur­face of the wa­ter north of the Mag­dalen Is­lands late Wed­nes­day, but it was not yet clear what may have caused this lat­est death.

It fol­lows the deaths of two fe­male and four male North At­lantic right whales found last month.

Tonya Wim­mer of the Ma­rine An­i­mal Re­sponse So­ci­ety said sci­en­tists need to in­ten­sify ef­forts to find out if the lum­ber­ing gi­ants are mak­ing the Gulf one of their pri­mary feed­ing grounds in a shift away from their tra­di­tional habi­tats in the Bay of Fundy and Rose­way Basin.

“All of that to­gether is say­ing there needs to be a very strong fo­cus on the Gulf to re­ally look at what’s go­ing on and po­ten­tially try to fig­ure out where they are and then what can be done to pro­tect them,” she said.

“It’s a re­ally im­por­tant an­i­mal to look at in the realm of this larger pic­ture of in­ci­dents that have been hap­pen­ing in that south­ern Gulf of St. Lawrence area.”

Wim­mer is hop­ing fish­eries of­fi­cials will ar­range to do ne­crop­sies, or an­i­mal au­top­sies, on the lat­est dead whale as well as a right whale named Panama that has washed ashore on the Mag­dalen Is­lands to de­ter­mine what killed them.

Fish­eries spokes­woman Krista Petersen said she didn’t know if a de­ci­sion had been made about the ex­am­i­na­tions.

Three of the other six North At­lantic right whales were necrop­sied af­ter be­ing hauled on shore in P.E.I. late last month. Sci­en­tists say in­spec­tions sug­gest two suf­fered blunt trauma in­juries con­sis­tent with ship strikes – one of the dead­li­est threats to the an­i­mals.

The third died from a chronic en­tan­gle­ment in fish­ing gear that was wrapped around a fin and in­side its mouth.

The deaths are a dev­as­tat­ing blow to the whale’s frag­ile pop­u­la­tion and the sci­en­tists who have been work­ing for decades to re­build a species that was once hunted to the brink of ex­tinc­tion and now num­bers about 525.

Robert Michaud of the Group for Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion on Ma­rine Mam­mals in Que­bec said he was stunned to hear of such a high num­ber of ca­su­al­ties in one sea­son, when they would nor­mally see about two cases in­volv­ing whales be­ing hit by ships or get­ting en­tan­gled in fish­ing gear.

He added an eighth right whale was freed from a snarl of fish­ing line on Wed­nes­day by a team on board a re­search ves­sel in the same area.

“It raises our con­cerns – when will this ever stop,” he said from Tadous­sac. “It is a prob­lem. We don’t know ex­actly what’s go­ing on.”

The losses also come af­ter a low calv­ing sea­son, with the deaths now out­pac­ing the num­ber of ba­bies born this year.

Moira Brown, a right whale ex­pert with the Cana­dian Whale In­sti­tute, said she had be­gun shift­ing her re­search at­ten­tion to the Gulf re­gion sev­eral years ago when she and her team no­ticed there were fewer North At­lantic right whales in their tra­di­tional haunts in the Bay of Fundy.

In 2015, they found 35 of the whales in the area where the most re­cent car­casses were spot­ted. In a sur­vey last year, they found 17 of the whales in the area.

The chal­lenge, she said, is de­ter­min­ing that this is a whale habi­tat and then work­ing with the fish­ing and ship­ping in­dus­tries to come up with ways to pro­tect the an­i­mals as has been done in other parts of the Mar­itimes by rerout­ing ship­ping lanes, alert­ing fish­er­men to whales’ pres­ence and set­ting speed lim­its for ves­sels.

“I think they’re shift­ing based on lack of sight­ings in the Gulf of Maine and less sight­ings in the Bay of Fundy,” she said.

“The fish­ing in­dus­try and the ship­ping in­dus­try are aware of right whales else­where, but they’re not aware of them there be­cause it’s re­ally early days in us fig­ur­ing out whether the whales are us­ing this habi­tat.”

SUB­MIT­TED

A sev­enth whale was found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This photo was pro­vided by the Ma­rine Se­cu­rity En­force­ment Team Que­bec in part­ner­ship with the RCMP and the Coast Guard.

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