high mortality among right whales in Gulf of st. lawrence

First published in, Landings, August 2017

This has been a deadly summer for the endangered North Atlantic right whale. In June and July, eight right whales were found dead in the area around the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Preliminary findings from necropsies performed on the whales by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) indicate that three of the whales showed evidence of ship strikes. Another whale had become entangled in snow crab gear. Research scientists suspect that toxic algae might have affected the whales as well, causing problems with their ability to navigate.

Attention to the situation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was further heightened when a whale disentangler, Joe Howlett of Campobello, was killed after helping disentangle another right whale from snow crab gear off New Brunswick on July 10. Howlett was part of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, which he co-founded fifteen years ago. He was one of only a few certified whale disentanglers in Canada and worked closely with the New England Aquarium and the Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod. DFO closed part of the Maritime provinces’ snow crab fishery two days before the season ended in response to the whale crisis.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans personnel investigate one of
eight dead right whales found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Photo
courtesy of the Toronto Star.

Canadian Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said his department may consider changes to the snow crab fishery in order to minimize whale entanglements and collisions between whales and fishing boats. He said the department will begin a study on why right whales have been changing their migratory patterns. North Atlantic right whales typically spend part of each winter in waters off the southeastern United States, and during the summer months migrate through the Gulf of Maine, from Massachusetts Bay to the Bay of Fundy. But in recent years, right whales have moved in large numbers into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where there are major shipping routes and commercial fishing. 

While it’s hard to determine why the whales are there, David Gouveia, marine mammal and sea turtle conservation coordinator at Greater Atlantic Region Fisheries Office (GARFO), thinks food is a likely draw. “It appears there is a very high abundance of copepods there,” he said in an email. Right whales feed on copepods, preferring the high-fat Calanus finmarchicus species prevalent in the North Atlantic Ocean. The copepods have specific temperature requirements, thus a warming ocean may be affecting their presence in traditional right whale feeding areas.

After Howlett’s death, both Canada and the United States suspended large whale disentanglement efforts. The U.S. lifted the ban on July 18, for all but right whale entanglements.

In the United States, federal permits are issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through the National Marine Fisheries Service to trained individuals who are then allowed to help free large whales snarled in fishing gear. The responders are categorized by level, which corresponds to the size of the animal and complexity of the rescue efforts. The highest trained person, a Level 5 responder, can report an entanglement, stand by, assess, document, attach a telemetry buoy, consult on an action plan and disentangle all large whales, including North Atlantic right whales. Currently, there are 80 trained responders in the United States, of which only six are Level 5.