2017 Right Whale Mortalities: What We’ve Learned
Since the start of the year, 15 right whale carcasses have been found in the North Atlantic near the Canadian and US coasts. The average number of right whale deaths in any given year is three. For an endangered population with fewer than 500 individuals, such a mortality event can have tragic consequences. Report series by Josiane Cabana and Marie-Ève Muller.
Sharing the waters
The year 2017 marks a sad record: the highest number of right whale deaths since whaling ended in the 1930s. What have we learned from this mortality event and what should we be watching for in the months to come?
“We face a huge challenge in terms of coexistence,” says Robert Michaud, scientific director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals and coordinator of the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network. “The threats faced by right whales are the usual ones, namely entanglements and collisions. The only thing is now they are frequenting a relatively new place for them, which no one was prepared for.”
Since April, a total of 15 right whale carcases have been found in Canadian and US waters and seven entanglements, two of which were fatal, have been reported. Human activity is therefore being blamed and no underlying conditions have been identified.
This year, more right whales than usual were observed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In one aerial survey, nearly a quarter of the world’s right whale population was tallied. In comparison, surveyors reported 45 individuals in 2015 and 40 in 2016. However, the difference between present and past observations might be biased by increased surveillance of the area by Canadian and US governments in response to the mortality event.
What has brought right whales into a region so heavily trafficked by ships and fishing boats? Their prey – traditionally found farther south, in the Bay of Fundy and near the US coast – now seem to prefer colder waters. And these prey will likely migrate into our waters once again next summer, and right whales won’t be far behind.
In August, Transport Canada imposed a temporary 10-knot speed limit on ships over 20 metres in length. Overall, the measure was complied with. Smaller boats were also requested to voluntarily reduce their speeds. The various shipping associations have pledged to support the right whale conservation effort, in addition to asking that other prevention measures be considered for next year.
To reduce the risk of entanglement and ship strikes, the snow crab fishery was terminated a few days early in July. This measure generated only minimal discontentment, as the majority of fishermen had already reached their quotas.
During the necropsies, the fishing gear found on the carcasses was analyzed in order to better understand exactly how entanglements occur. Upon release of the necropsy report, co-author and director of the Marine Animal Response Society Tonya Wimmer stated, “We need a more detailed understanding of entanglements: how they happen, in what types of gear, how the whales react, etc.”
At the present time, aerial and underwater surveillance is being maintained to determine whether or not right whales are still in the Gulf of St. Lawrence before upping the speed limit, which could be maintained until as late as December. In the months to come, various ministries will be working in tandem with the maritime and fisheries industry as well as research and protection groups to identify appropriate prevention measures. A series of five meetings is planned between Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the New Brunswick fishing industry to explore possible mitigation measures. The first one took place on October 16.
On October 22, the annual gathering of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium will take place on the sidelines of the 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. This meeting will focus on the findings made this past season, measures to prevent entanglements and future plans for monitoring the population in Canadian waters. On November 9, DFO will be organizing a summit on right whales where maritime, tourism and fisheries associations as well as research and conservation groups will be able to discuss future prevention measures.
- June 6: drifting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a first right whale carcass is reported to the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network.
- June 18: second carcass reported.
- June 19: third carcass reported; active research begins to locate and track drifting carcasses.
- June 21: fourth carcass discovered.
- June 22: fifth carcass discovered.
- June 23: sixth carcass discovered.
- June 29 to July 1: initial series of three necropsies carried out in Norway, Prince Edward Island. Preliminary results reveal blunt trauma and chronic entanglement marks.
- July 5: a disentanglement operation results in the release of a right whale caught in fishing gear.
- July 9 and 10: second series of two necropsies carried out in Corfu (Magdalen Islands).
- July 10: The successful release of an entangled right whale was overshadowed by the tragic death of fisherman and whale rescuer Joe Howlett, a member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team.
- July 11: Following the loss of Joe Howlett, the Canadian government imposes a temporary moratorium on disentanglement operations. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also imposes a moratorium.
- July 19: after a lull of several days, a seventh carcass is found.
- July 20: Fisheries and Oceans Canada prematurely closes the snow crab fishery to reduce the risk of entanglement.
- July 21: Discovery of an eighth carcass and sixth necropsy.
- July 27: two carcasses found: a ninth individual is confirmed, while the second carcass may already have been counted.
- July 30: a carcass washes ashore in Newfoundland; it may have already been counted.
- August 11: Canadian Coast Guard issues a Notice to Shipping requiring speed reduction for vessels over 20 metres long.
- August 14: a carcass is found on the US east coast, the third one for this sector of the Atlantic.
- August 25: US launches its own investigation into the unprecedented mortality event of North Atlantic right whales.
- August 28: an entangled right whale is reported off the Gaspé Peninsula and is not to be seen again.
- September 15: new carcass discovered, bringing the number of right whale carcasses found in Canadian waters to 11.
- September 19: seventh necropsy, performed on Miscou Island in New Brunswick.
- October 5: the Incident Report: North Atlantic Right Whale Mortality Event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is released.
Some Reference Elements
The Necropsy Report
Daoust, P.-Y., E.L. Couture, T. Wimmer and L. Bourque. 2017. Incident Report: North Atlantic Right Whale Mortality Event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2017. Collaborative Report. Produced by: Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, Marine Animal Response Society, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 224 pp. Online.
The Government Summaries
United States: 2017 North Atlantic Right Whale Unusual Mortality Event
On Whales Online
Whales of the St. Lawrence: North Atlantic Right Whale
Our report on entanglements: “Whales in the Nets”
On the speed limits : Reduced speed limits for ships: an effective measure for protecting whales?
On the decline of the right whale population: North Atlantic Right Whales Declining Since 2010, Confirms Study
Portrait of nine of the whales that died this summer: Giant Losses.
Elsewhere in the Media
Deep Trouble: the North Atlantic right whale in peril, a podcast from CBC
October 5 | Human Activities to Blame
One mortality stemming from chronic entanglement, four from ship strikes and one from unknown causes, but with observations suggesting a collision: the results of six necropsies demonstrate that human activity was responsible for the death of six right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer.
This was confirmed this morning by Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust and Émilie L. Couture of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative. They were unable to identify any underlying conditions that might have led to these deaths. No traces of algal biotoxins were found, nor were any chronic or infectious diseases or malnutrition issues. It is therefore highly unlikely that causes other than ship strikes or entanglements are responsible for the deaths of the necropsied whales. For the other whales that have not undergone necropsies, the causes of death remain unknown.
The two veterinarians reiterated the difficulty of analyzing animal carcasses that have experienced rapid decomposition. It is possible that lesions may have been masked by the state of the carcasses. Nevertheless, veterinarians are confident in their diagnosis: human activities played a role.
“It is important to understand that these findings are not issued to point fingers, but rather to learn and to know where to focus our protection efforts,” clarified Tonya Wimmer, co-author of the report and director of the Marine Animal Response Society.
The 224-page report confirms that 12 right whales perished in Canadian waters this summer. Three additional carcasses were found in US waters. Only 458 individuals remain in the North Atlantic right whale population. It has been confirmed that this population is in decline.
A total of five living whales were observed entangled in fishing gear: one whale succumbed to its entanglement and the seventh, according to the preliminary results of the September 19 necropsy, is also believed to be dead. Two of the entangled whales were released by the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, one managed to free itself and observers lost track of the other two. To date, their carcasses have not been found, either.
Photos of fishing gear and analyses of pieces of rope or trap parts reveal that snow crab gear was involved in at least four of the incidents.
Further details to follow.
To read the portrait of nine of the right whales that died this summer: Giant Losses.
Daoust, P.-Y., E.L. Couture, T. Wimmer and L. Bourque. 2017. Incident Report: North Atlantic Right Whale Mortality Event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2017. Collaborative Report. Produced by: Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, Marine Animal Response Society, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 224 pp. Online.
September 26 | 7 cases of entanglement in one summer
No fewer than seven incidents of right whale entanglements in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were confirmed by the New England Aquarium this summer. Two of the carcasses discovered had obvious traces of entanglement (snow crab traps or ropes wrapped around the whale) and five cases of live ensnared whales were reported. The whales reported on July 5 and 10 were released by human intervention. One whale managed to free itself, while the other two were not seen again, ropes in tow or otherwise.
Entanglements can cause serious long-term health problems. For this reason, the issue is examined at length in Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s report entitled “North Atlantic Right Whale: a science based review of recovery actions for three at-risk whale populations”, published May 19, 2017, with recommendations to prevent entanglements, including using less resistant rope, changing fishing gear or closing off certain fishing areas.
To read our report on entanglements: “Whales in the Nets“.
To read the portrait of eight of the whales that died this summer: Giant Losses.
September 21 | Necropsy for an eleventh carcass
On Miscou Island in New Brunswick, a team composed of veterinarians, pathologists, researchers and volunteers carried out a seventh right whale necropsy on September 19. The eleventh right whale carcass found in Canadian waters this summer was able to be towed to shore for study. Even before initiating any intervention, responders were able to observe ropes and a snow crab trap on the carcass. Given that the crabbing season has already ended, an investigation is undertaken by Fisheries and Oceans Canada to verify where the trap had come from.
Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative and Dr. Émilie L. Couture of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the Université de Montréal supervise the operation. The Marine Animal Response Society also participated in the necropsy. For the time being, it is known that the carcass under study is a female, but it has not been identified in the right whale catalogue maintained by the New England Aquarium. It is also unclear whether it is the same individual as the one observed entangled off the Gaspé Peninsula on August 28.
A report summarizing the results of the seven necropsies and the analysis of the samples taken from the carcasses that could not be necropsied is expected to be published in early fall. For the time being, the speed reduction for vessels exceeding 20 metres is still in force and no end date for this measure has been announced. Right whales typically return to their wintering grounds in the southern US in the fall and thus should now be leaving the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Canadian waters; however, recent aerial and acoustic surveys via remote-controlled underwater glider have revealed the continued presence of right whales in the area.
The annual meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium will be held on the sidelines of the 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. The event will bring together researchers and managers from Canada and the US. At the heart of discussions: how to reduce the risks of entanglements and collisions.
Sometime between now and next season, both federal governments are expected to announce new protection measures for next summer.
A worrying situation for a declining population
On September 19, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and researchers at the New England Aquarium, using a new model, confirmed that the North Atlantic right whale population has been declining by approximately 1% a year between 2010 and the most recent population survey conducted in 2015. Today’s population is estimated to be fewer than 500 individuals.
The new model reveals a more pronounced decline in females, which could further hinder the recovery of this small population. The causes of this phenomenon remain to be proven.
Produced by CBC’s Deep Trouble series, this video highlights the defining moments of this whale mortality event. © CBC
Whales in the Nets (Whales Online, July 28, 2017)
Fishing gear likely responsible for 11th whale mortality (in French, Radio-Canada, September 19, 2017)
Fisheries officials investigate snow crab trap cut from dead right whale (CBC, September 19, 2017)
Method to estimate abundance, trends in North Atlantic right whales confirms decline (Phys.org, September 19, 2017)
Right whale deaths in Gulf of St. Lawrence (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, September 19, 2017)
Reduced speed limits for ships: an effective measure for protecting whales? (Whales Online, August 30, 2017)
Robots4Whales (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
July 31 | Ninth confirmed carcass of right whale
Fisheries and Oceans Canada has confirmed that it has found two carcasses of right whales in Newfoundland. At least one of the two carcasses had not yet been identified. The total is now 9 dead right whales that died since June 6 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
July 21 | Necropsy on Miscou Island
The necropsy of the eighth Right Whale carcass is ongoing right now on Miscou Island. Are onsite Canadian Wildlife Health Network – Quebec Center for Wild Animal Health, University of Montreal and Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Marine Animal Response Society.
July 20 | A new carcass and a new entanglement
A Right Whale carcass was discovered yesterday afternoon during a NOAA air patrol. The count now stands at eight carcasses since June 6, an event of mortality never seen before for this species. Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced that the carcass would be towed towards Miscou Island within a few hours to perform a necropsy over the next few days. This operation allows the researchers to collect valuable information on the cause(s) of the death of this whale and to investigate a possible link between the other cases of mortality of right whale. Necropsy will be supervised by the Canadian Wildlife Health Network.
To the eight carcasses was added a fourth case of entanglement of right whales, located in the same sector of the Gulf. At this time, no action is envisaged as Fisheries and Oceans Canada has established an indefinite moratorium on right whale disentanglement operations.
July 13 | Preliminary Findings on North Atlantic Right Whale Necropsies in the Magdalen Islands
Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative veterinarians today released the preliminary results of the two right whale necropsies on 9 and 10 July in the Magdalen Islands. If one of the two carcasses was too decomposed to allow a preliminary diagnosis, the second carries the marks of a blunt trauma, suggesting that there was a collision between the whale and a craft.
On July 9th, the necropsy of carcass # 3, seen for the first time drifting on June 18th and shored on July 5th on Corfu beach, took place. Its decomposition state being too advanced, it is impossible for the veterinarians to suggest a cause of death on the sole basis of the macroscopic examination of the carcass. Further analyzes are in progress in the hope of finding a diagnosis.
For the whale studied on 10 July, the seventh and last carcass seen drifting and towed on the beach, the hypothesis of a blunt trauma could be envisaged. In the case of right whale necropsies in Prince Edward Island, two carcasses showed signs of blunt trauma and chronic entanglement.
Analyzes on tissues and fluids taken to try to identify an underlying cause, such as the presence of biotoxins, that could explain these close deaths over a short period of time. A final report for these two necropsies should be available within 6 to 8 weeks.
“These preliminary results stem from an important collective effort. The last few weeks have called for the mobilization of a diversity of actors who have worked hard. We are all on alert until we have the complete results of the necropsies, “said Robert Michaud, Coordinator of the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Network and Scientific Director of the Marine Mammal Research and Education Group . “Last Monday, the death of Joe Howlett threw a veil over the incredible work accomplished. We once again salute his contribution to the rescue of right whales. ”
Participants included the Canadian Wildlife Health Network – Quebec Center for Wild Animal Health, University of Montreal and Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergencies Network, the Marine Animal Response Society, the Environment Canada Network and the Department of Sustainable Development, Environment and Climate Change, the municipalities of the Iles-de-La-Madeleine, the Marine Mammal Research and Education Group,
July 11 | Two Right Whale Necropsies Completed in Magdalen Islands
The C.T.M.A. Vacancier brought veterinary crews back to the New Brunswick coast this morning after two days of gruelling work demanding expert hand coordination. Exhausted but satisfied with the work that went according to plan, Émilie L. Couture of Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine points out that “the two right whale necropsies are a great achievement made possible thanks to several partners.* Such a situation fully warranted the efforts that were made.”
On Sunday and Monday, the teams studied two whales – the most decomposed and the freshest of the seven carcasses – that were part of a series of unusual mortalities in the Gulf. These are in addition to three other right whales examined from June 29 to July 1 in Prince Edward Island. Both whales were males, one measuring 14.75 m and the other 12.9 m.
Pathologists will have to consult with other veterinarians specializing in the species and undertake more in-depth discussions and analyses of their samples before publishing in the days to come a preliminary report on the findings of the recent necropsies. Other analyses, including for the presence of biotoxin in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, will also be carried out by specialized laboratories.
Right whale untangling ends badly
Yesterday, July 10, fisherman and whale rescuer Joe Howlett lost his life in an operation to free an entangled right whale.
Mr. Howlett had succeeded in disentangling a right whale on July 5. Another whale was reported caught in fishing gear off New Brunswick on Sunday night. Mr. Howlett’s team, the Canadian Whale Institute’s Campobello Whale Rescue Team, was dispatched to the scene. They managed to release the whale, but shortly afterwards, an unfortunate accident involving the cetacean resulted in the death of Mr. Howlett.
Joe Howlett and his crew have participated in a large number of rescues of this type and have thus developed invaluable expertise. The Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Network has regularly solicited their assistance, as was the case in 2013 (article in French), when the fin whale “Capitaine Crochet” was entangled.
“In memory of this hero who saved a number of whales, preventing entanglements must become a priority to ensure a better co-existence with whales,” points out the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals.
Since June 6, seven right whales have died and three have been reported entangled, giving rise to two disentanglement attempts.
A video illustrates Mr. Howlett helping to free a right whale in 2016:
* Partners involved in right whale necropsies are veterinarians from the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative in the Montréal and Atlantic regions; the science, conservation and protection teams of Fisheries and Oceans in the Quebec, Gulf and Maritime regions; the Marine Animal Response Society and the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Network and its volunteers.
July 6 | Panama
The carcass of the third of the seven dead right whales found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June has recently washed ashore in the Magdalen Islands. Spotted early yesterday morning by a fisherman, the carcass was drifting a few hundred metres from shore. It ran aground last night on the beach, a few kilometres from the Corfu Island shipwreck in L’Étang-du-Nord.
This past weekend, necropsies were performed on three of the six carcasses towed to Prince Edward Island. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) authorities are working with veterinarians to evaluate the possibility of a fourth necropsy in an attempt to understand the causes of this unprecedented wave of deaths.
A male named Panama
The right whale stranded in the Magdalen Islands is listed in the catalogue under no. 3190. It is a male known as Panama, who was first seen in 2000. Already then, he showed a conspicuous scar near his tail, testimony of a run-in with fishing gear. It was this distinctive marking that allowed researchers at the New England Aquarium to recognize him. His exact age when he was first observed is unknown, but he must now be over 17 years old (sexual maturity is between 5 and 10 years for both sexes). Panama was last seen alive on April 14, 2017 by researchers of the Center for Coastal Studies. He was feeding in Cape Cod Bay. He was also observed closer to us last fall, on September 6, 2016, by the Mingan Island Cetacean Study team in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Panama was the known father of at least one calf born in 2011.
Species at Risk: Do not Touch
At the present time, the carcass remains difficult to access. If it leaves the tidal zone, some people might be tempted to approach it, touch it, or even collect small samples from it.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada reminds us that right whales are listed as a Species at Risk (SARA). It is therefore against the law to take any part of this animal. Only individuals holding a permit issued by the Ministry are authorized to touch, move, or take samples from species at risk.
A 7th whale carcass off Havre-Aubert
Another right whale carcass was spotted 30 nautical miles off Havre-Aubert last night by a member of the Coast Guard. Experts confirmed this morning that this was a new carcass that had not been spotted earlier by air or sea. The right whale mortality count now stands at seven in one month.
On July 5, a right whale entangled in a fishing gear was spotted on an air patrol being conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (US counterpart to Fisheries and Oceans Canada) near Miscou Island. A nearby research vessel was able to release the whale, which was then able to continue on its way.
July 5 | Right Whale Mortality : Preliminary Results
The three necropsies carried out from June 29 to July 1 on North Atlantic Right Whales provided partial answers as to the causes of mortality of these animals.
According to the expertise of the veterinarians, one of the three whales would have undergone a severe entanglement in a fishing gear. The other two were reportedly involved in a collision with a ship, judging by the haemorrhages in their tissues. The assumption that a particular situation might have lead to these collisions is not excluded at this stage. In the next weeks, specialists will be complete laboratory testing of tissues, analysis of food chain and oceanographic data, and chronological ordering of events. The findings should be published within six to eight weeks.
Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society noted the complexity of the work, as the three whales were in an advanced state of decomposition upon their arrival in Prince Edward Island. The carcass considered to be the freshest had been dead for at least one week, which made it difficult to identify the different organs.
It is possible that in the next few days, a fourth necropsy will occur, as the third carcass to have been reported drifts to the Magdalen Islands and may land soon.
The three necropsies on Prince Edward Island were led by Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust (Canadian Wildlife Health Network), assisted by Dr. Laura Bourque (Canadian Wildlife Health Network ), Dr. William McLellan (University of North Carolina Wilmington) and Dr. Stephen Raverty (BC Animal Health Center). More than forty people from several organizations, including veterinarians from the Université de Montréal, participated in the interventions.
Here is a summary in pictures of these days of hard work:
UPDATE – Preliminary Findings from Right Whale NecropsiesAfter a long few weeks and the incredible effort to retrieve and necropsy three animals in PEI, we can release some preliminary information on the state of these animals:Based on preliminary observations, there is reasonable suggestion of blunt trauma in two of the animals, although underlying problems that may have predisposed these animals to this trauma cannot be ruled out at this stage. The third animal had a chronic entanglement. Additional analyses are still ongoing and we anticipate completing a final report within 6-8 weeks.There is clearly work that needs to be done immediately to protect this species throughout it’s range in Canadian waters. Thank you to everyone for your continued support and interest in this tragic incident. A special thank you to all of the agencies listed in the video and all of the people on the ground over these 3 days: Pierre-Yves, Laura, Stephen, Bill, Isabelle, Andrew, Jarrett, Ashley, Briar, Liam, Jessica, Fiep, Darlene, Rachel, Twila, Scott, Cathy, Stephanie, Renee, Dan, Jean-Francois, Hilary, Tobie, Mikio, Angelia, Emilie, Rozen, Benjamin, Kathleen, Dara, Elizabeth, Chris, Pat, Don, Mary, Ken, Shona, Maddie, Tim, Pete, Jen, Shavonne, Travis, Craig, Marcus…and more to be added as I remember all of the names!SPREAD THE WORD. SUPPORT THE CAUSE. DONATE NOW.Justin Trudeau Dominic LeBlanc Catherine McKenna
Posted by Marine Animal Response Society on Monday, July 3, 2017
July 3 | A Third Necropsy Completed
On July 1, the third and final right whale necropsy was completed in Norway, Prince Edward Island. The necropsy marathon lasted four days, where carcasses were towed and necropsies were performed at an unprecedented rate.
Over the next few days, samples will continue to be analyzed. Preliminary results are expected to be disclosed during the week.
Under the supervision of Pierre-Yves Daoust, a professor at the University of Prince Edward Island and a researcher at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, veterinarians from the University of British Columbia, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Montreal, and members of the Marine Animal Response Society team have been working together to find all possible clues to determine what has caused the death of six right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since June 6.
Video from Marine Animal Response Society
June 30 | Right Whale Mortality : A Second Necropsy in Progress
During the day, the necropsy of the second right whale carcass took place. This carcass was the freshest of the six. A third carcass, which was entangled in a fishing net, is currently being transported to Norway, Prince Edward Island, and is expected to reach the shore by the end of the night. The necropsy of this third carcass will take place tomorrow. It could take several weeks to get the results of the analysis of the samples taken by veterinarians.
In the last few days, a report of a seventh carcass had been received, but the analysis of the photos concluded that it was an already identified carcass. The total remains six carcasses of North Atlantic right whale since June 6. In the same area (Gulf of St. Lawrence) a fin whale carcass was found.
June 28 | Right Whale Mortalities : First Necropsies
At the time of writing, one of the six right whale carcasses is approaching the shores of Prince Edward Island, transported by a Canadian Coast Guard vessel, and should be dropped off in the community of Norway by sunset. The first necropsy will begin tomorrow morning. Veterinarians from the University of Prince Edward Island, the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the University of Montréal’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, assisted by researchers and volunteers from Canada and the United States, will carry out meticulous tissue and organ analysis.
In total, the teams plan to perform necropsies on two or even three whales by early next week. The second whale carcass, the towing of which will probably start tomorrow, is the one known as catalogue #1207. It is the freshest carcass of the six, a male of undetermined age, but known to researchers since 1980 and last photographed in June 2014. This whale used to frequent the waters of Maine, with a few visits to Florida and Georgia, but it was also seen in August 1998 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Air surveys and sea patrols will also continue over the next few days to locate previously reported carcasses, or new ones, if any.
To follow the updates of these operations, you can visit the Marine Animal Response Society’s Facebook page, in addition to the Whales Online website. A video was released this morning showing samples being taken at sea from one of the right whales.
UPDATE – RIGHT WHALES IN THE GULF OF THE ST. LAWRENCE:Necropsies are being planned for 2-3 endangered North Atlantic right whales that are currently being towed ashore to Norway, PEI. The first animal is expected to be brought ashore today with the necropsy commencing Thursday morning. Intentions are to bring additional animals to the same site later in the week. This is a joint effort between Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Canadian Coast Guard, the Marine Animal Response Society, Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative-Atlantic Veterinary College/UPEI, Université de Montréal and colleagues from the UNCW, Urgences Mammifères Marins and the Province of British Columbia. Scientists in Canada the US were also involved in the planning of this work. We are grateful for the help of everyone involved! It will be hard work, but we have a great team coming together for this critical work.A special thank you to the Province of Prince Edward Island for accommodating and facilitating this operation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Environment and Natural Resources in Canada for keeping track of animals during aerial surveys.Justin Trudeau Catherine McKenna Dominic LeBlanc #cmara
Posted by Marine Animal Response Society on Wednesday, June 28, 2017
June 26 | Developing a Right Whale Carcass Recovery Strategy
Pursuant to aerial surveys conducted by NOAA and Environment Canada between June 22 and June 25, 6 different right whale carcasses were found. A few dozen other right whales have also been observed in the same area, between the Magdalen Islands, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and US and Canadian partners held a meeting this morning to review the situation. Thanks to the efforts made at sea since last weekend by DFO, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, three whales have been “secured” with satellite transmitters and can now be tracked as they continue to drift. Another carcass is also anchored and stationary, as it is immobilized by fishing gear.
DFO is currently considering options for towing these carcasses to dry land in order to conduct a comprehensive investigation with complete necropsies. Veterinarians, researchers and coordinators at DFO are currently studying the feasibility and logistics of such an operation.
Offshore teams were also busy recovering samples from two of the carcasses, including skin, blubber, feces, and muscle tissue. The objective is to provide insight into the sudden cause of mortality in these whales.
All conjectures are currently being looked at by right whale scientists. The most frequent causes of mortality in this species are ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. The hypothesis of the presence of a biotoxin produced by algae such as the one responsible for the red tide episode observed in the St. Lawrence in 2008 has also been raised by the scientific community. Tissue analyses and water samples might shed more light on the matter.
An advisory is still in effect: boat operators are encouraged to report any drifting whale carcasses to the emergency number for the St. Lawrence Gulf Region, 1-866-567-6277.
June 23 | The researchers confirmed last night that a fifth carcass of right whale was drifting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
With the analysis of the photos taken yesterday by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), researchers found that the count of dead right whales photographed since June 6 was now up to five carcasses.
Yesterday was a successful day on the water collecting samples and data from two of the five dead right whales currently floating in southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. A great collaborative effort between MARS, Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Canadian Coast Guard.
Researchers in Canada and in the United States are currently mobilizing their resources to plan efforts to find these carcasses, set guidelines for tracking their drift, and sample whales to make analyzes that could provide elements of response to the mystery that hovers over these mortalities.
June 22 | A Fourth Dead Right Whale Drifting
The aerial patrol from June 21 afternoon made by Fisheries and Oceans Canada to track the right whale carcasses identified two, including one seen by a fisherman on June 18. Photos of the other spotted carcass were sent to the New England Aquarium, which confirmed that it was a fourth right whale carcass.
The whale found was Starboard, a female born in 2006 of her mother named Trilogy. She was 11 years old, and easily recognizable to the right portion of her tail that is missing. This characteristic made it possible to identify her earlier today. This female, who had never given birth yet, had been seen by researchers for the last time in August 2014, in the Roseway Basin.
One of the Carcasses Found Today Off the Îles-de-la-Madeleine
Efforts to trace these specimens continue. A team of Fisheries and Oceans Canada was heading this afternoon at sea to one of the carcasses that was spotted on the surface of the water, about 30 kilometres from the Magdalen Islands coast, to the southwest Of Havre-Aubert. The goal, in addition to finding the other carcasses, was to place satellite beacons in order to track the whales, to facilitate finding the whales when the team will be ready to take samples.
An air patrol of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should be made tomorrow. The goal is to be able to obtain more photos of the animals, in order to be able to determine if they have marks of a collision with a vessel or entanglement in a fishing gear.
June 21 | Three Dead Right Whales Drifting in the Gulf
The scientific community is concerned: since June 6, three North Atlantic right whale carcases have been reported drifting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence between New Brunswick and the Magdalen Islands. The right whale is one of the most endangered species. Researchers at the New England Aquarium estimate that there are fewer than 500 individuals remaining in this population.
These carcasses are in addition to three that were found in the summer of 2015 in the Gaspé region, including that of Piper (article in French). According to right whale specialist Moira Brown, these mortalities in the St. Lawrence River are an unexplained event that surpass known mortality incidents in other parts of this species’ range.
Advisory to Fishers and Other Boaters
Carcasses were observed on June 6, 18 and 19 between New Brunswick and the Magdalen Islands (notably off Miscou Island), either by Fisheries And Oceans Canada during air patrols or by crabbing boats. According to modelling simulations, depending on the wind and the current, the carcasses are expected to continue drifting northeast, away from shore.
An advisory is issued to anyone sailing in this area: it is essential that each of these right whales be documented. Photos, videos, detailed observations of markings or other signs of human interaction are essential.
If you observe a floating dead whale, please contact Marine Mammals Emergencies immediately at
It will be important to take note of the GPS position. The Call Centre team will then be able to provide instructions so that you can document the carcass as well as possible.
Your collaboration is highly appreciated.
Josiane Cabana serves as Director for the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network call centre. When she’s not responding to cases of dead or vulnerable marine mammals, she likes to take the time to educate local residents on the threats faced by these animals. Biologist by training, she has been involved with the GREMM for more than 15 years, and always with the same undying passion!