Blunt force trauma is being blamed for the death of at least four North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence last summer.
The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC) recently released a report on the deaths of North Atlantic right whales. Veterinarians Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust, a pathologist and professor at the Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC), and Émilie L. Couture of the Université de Montréal, presented their findings at a widely attended news conference at the Atlantic Veterinary College. Daoust and Couture are members of the CWHC.
Entitled “Incident Report: North Atlantic Right Whale Mortality Event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2017,” the report describes the key findings of the necropsies and provides contextual information on the conditions and human activities occurring in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The report was prepared and released in partnership with the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). Tonya Wimmer, director of MARS, Matthew Hardy, spokesperson for the Science Branch in DFO’s Gulf Region, and Jane Weldon, director general of Marine Safety and Security at Transport Canada, participated in the news conference.
Twelve of the endangered whales have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since early June, and five live-entanglements were documented. Another three were found dead off the coast of the U.S.
Necropsies were performed on six whales brought to shore in Norway, P.E.I., the Magdalen Islands, and Miscou, N.B. Of the six, four died from blunt-force trauma and one died after chronic entanglement in fishing gear. The cause of death couldn’t be determined in another because it was too decomposed. A necropsy was performed on a seventh brought to shore in Miscou on Sept. 19, but those results aren’t yet available.
The report states necropsy findings of trauma and entanglement coincide with the high level of fisheries and maritime traffic in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It says more research is needed to understand right whale habitat in the Gulf, as well as human activities in these waters, to prevent further deaths.
“This has been a tragic summer for the North Atlantic right whale population and we are deeply concerned about the future of these marine mammals,” says federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc. “We’re grateful for the comprehensive report issued by the CWHC. It will guide our next steps to address this complex situation and ensure our decisions are based on the best available science and information.”
LeBlanc says the federal government has a responsibility to continue to act to ensure these marine mammals are protected for future generations.
“These results show the steps taken so far this summer to slow down ships and to close some fisheries were warranted,” LeBlanc says.
On July 20, LeBlanc directed Fisheries and Oceans Canada to close snow crab fishing area 12 in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. The minister also directed other fisheries in the area be limited, delayed or closed for the same reason.
In August, Transport Canada imposed a temporary mandatory speed restriction of no more than 10 knots for vessels 20 metres or more when travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence, and a voluntary slowdown for vessels under 20 metres. As of early October, penalties have been issued by Transport Canada to four vessels for not respecting the mandatory speed restriction.
“North Atlantic right whales typically migrate out of our waters by December, which will allow the Government of Canada to meet over the next few months with the fishing and marine transportation industries, indigenous communities, whale experts and scientists, and the United States’ National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration,” LeBlanc says. “The consultations will be part of an open and transparent process that will lead to changes next summer aimed at protecting these endangered animals from further harm.”
Meanwhile, the Canadian Wildlife Federation stands by its recommendation published earlier this year to reduce the risk of entanglement by at least 30 per cent and to accomplish this by excluding fishing from those areas where whales occur most regularly.
“We’re disappointed, but unsurprised to find that almost all deaths are due to human activities,” says Sean Brillant, CWF manager of marine programs. “Solving this is going to require input from all interests and we’re eager to start that process.”
CWF also supports Transport Canada’s commitment to maintain speed restrictions for ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence as long as North Atlantic right whales are present, and altering their location depending on the movements of these whales.
The 12 right whales that died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer represent almost three per cent of the remaining population.