2017 was a grim year for the North Atlantic right whales. The deaths of 18 right whales created a shock wave in Canada and the United States. What will 2018 be for the right whales? Measures to reduce the risk of entanglement and collision, the two main causes of right whale death, have been put in place. Follow the news about right whales here.

To read the 2017 recap, go here.


Interactive maps of the right whale sightings in Canadian waters: WhaleMap and On Alert for Whales

Interactive map of the right whale sightings in United States’ waters: NOAA

Monitoring of slowdown measures in collision prevention : Transports Canada

Monitoring of the fisheries closure : Fisheries and Oceans Canada

The Right Whale Tale: A Year-in-Review (2018)

Once believed to be the “right” whales to hunt, the endangered North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) population has been plummeting for at least the last eight years. The latest estimate stands at a mere 411 individuals.

Right whales are found in U.S. and Canadian Atlantic waters. Their distribution in the western North Atlantic spans the Gulf of St. Lawrence all the way down to Florida. Their main prey, Calanus finmarchicus, a tiny zooplankton from the copepod subclass, is now found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in higher abundance due to warming waters—and so are they. However, being a non-traditional feeding ground, there were not any protective measures in place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence until 2017.

By the end of 2017, 17 carcasses were found in the North Atlantic and necropsies were performed on seven of them. Entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes were the prime causes of death.

2018 started with another alarming situation: research teams did not see any new calves for the first time in decades during the breeding season from December to March and none even after.

Calving rates of the North Atlantic right whales have been on a decline for the last few years. Entanglement and fluctuating prey availability add stress to the almost 71 remaining breeding females. Additionally, recent studies found that their calving intervals have increased from four years to 10.

With nearly half of the population seen in the Gulf this year, researchers left no stone unturned with their collective conservation efforts. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has been introducing temporary and permanent fishery closures in the Gulf and Maritime regions all throughout the year. With combined projects from DFO, Dalhousie University, Canadian Armed Forces, Canadian Whale Institute, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the New England Aquarium, aerial and vessel surveillance and acoustic monitoring has also been in place in the whales’ critical habitat and beyond in order to document their changing distribution and alert mariners of their presence.

Furthermore, technological advancements are on the rise to combat the two main risks to the survival of this species: entanglement and ship strikes. For instance, a small Halifax-based business, called Ashored Innovations, is working with local fishermen to develop rope-lessfishing gear to eliminate the use of vertical lines, which will also help other species that are at risk for entanglement. Ocean Tracking Network’s Slocum gliders acoustically detect right whales as well as their prey movement to help with fishery management and shipping traffic changes around Nova Scotia.

The New England Aquarium is working on a project to simulate right whale entanglements to better understand them and tackle the problem. They are also part of the Ropeless Consortium that aims to eliminate vertical lines from the water column—a death trap for right whales. Trials for various new technologies have already begun off California and Massachusetts.

Three documented cases of mortalities occurred in the U.S. waters this year; it is in line with the average mortality rate of the past 15 to 20 years. On the other hand, there have not been any documented right whale deaths in Canadian waters.

After feeding in the northern latitudes, right whales are now migrating south along the eastern seaboard towards their breeding grounds. Their population will continue to dwindle unless new calves are born in the upcoming breeding season. Research teams from various organizations will start their monitoring efforts for the 2018-2019 breeding season starting January, and we will continue tracking the situation.

Here are the important events from 2018:

January 22: First carcass of the year was spotted floating 80 nautical miles east of Virginia Beach. It was identified as a female right whale (#3893: 10-years old). She died of chronic entanglement and had gear akin to that used in the Canadian snow crab fishery attached to her.

April 12: The Center for Coastal Studies team attempted to disentangle Kleenex (#1142), an adult female right whale, who has been entangled for the last three years. She was seen in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence by the NOAA Fisheries aerial survey team in June and July, and still had a rope wrapped around her head. Her condition continued to decline every time she was observed.

April 28: Following acoustic detections of a right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Transport Canada introduced speed restrictions for the western Gulf. Vessels that are 20 metres or more were not permitted to exceed 10 knots. Waters around Anticosti Island were also subject to speed restrictions when whales were spotted. Noncompliance could lead to fines of $6,000 up to $25,000.

May 12: An 8-year-old female right whale (#4091) was reported entangled east of Cape Cod, United States. She has not been seen since.

May 16: DFO spotted the first right whale off the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia during an aerial surveillance flight.

July 13: A male (#3312-born in 2003) right whale was found entangled near Miscou Island, New Brunswick during a surveillance flight. The individual was not seen again.

July 30: A second male (#3843: 10-years-old) became entangled and was reported 22 nautical miles east of Grand Manan dragging an orange buoy behind it. It looked emaciated.

August 06: #3843 was disentangled successfully after a joint effort by DFO, Campobello Whale Rescue Team, Grand Manan Whale & Seabird Research Stations, and the Marine Animal Response Society.

August 20: Another right whale was reported entangled east of Miscou Island, New Brunswick. DFO monitored the individual and observed it surfacing without gear. The individual had successfully freed itself from the gear.

August 25: Second carcass was found. It was an unidentified young right whale (about 1.5-years-old) is found dead south of Martha’s Vineyard near Nantucket, Massachusetts. Preliminary cause of death: entanglement and drowning. This individual was likely one of the five calves born over the 2016-2017 breeding season.

October 14: A third carcass was found floating in U.S. waters. It was another unidentified young right whale found dead about 100 miles east of Nantucket, Massachusetts by NOAA’s vessel Henry B. Bigelow. Preliminary cause of death: severe acute entanglement.

November 15: Transport Canada lifted speed restrictions for the western Gulf of St. Lawrence, and issued three tickets related to them. Additional tickets could result from the 12 currently open cases.

Thanks to Amy Knowlton from The New England Aquarium for the information.

Read more:

Whales Online:

North Atlantic Right Whales: Strong Presence Continues in 2018 (05/12/2018)

Right Whales: The Situation in 2018 (18/10/2018)

Right Whale Mortalities 2017: Overview (15/01/2018)

Elsewhere on the web:

North Atlantic Right Whales- Evaluating Their Recovery Challenges in 2018 (NOAA Fisheries, September 2018)

2018 Right Whale Activity in Cape Cod Bay (Center for Coastal Studies, July 2018)

On Alert for Whales (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Computer simulator gives new insight into right whale rope entanglements (CBC, November 22, 2018)

2017-2018 North Atlantic Right Whales Unusual Mortality Event (NOAA Fisheries)

Right Whales (Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life)

Final Update on North Atlantic Right Whale off Virginia (Press Release-NOAA, January 31, 2018)

Young Right Whale Likely Died from Entanglement (NOAA)

Third North Atlantic Right Whale Mortality of 2018 Confirmed (Media Release-NOAA, October 16, 2018)

The Right Whale Tale: A Year-in-Review (2018)

The southeastern Gulf of St. Lawrence was home to nearly half of the North Atlantic right whale population this summer, i.e. about 190 individuals. This estimate was obtained using aerial surveys and photo-identification campaigns. This is likely the largest concentration of right whales for the summer, according to Jean Landry, director of marine mammal science at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) identified 135 individuals in 2018, compared to 114 in 2017. However, census efforts were more intense in 2018. Some individuals were observed only once, while others were seen throughout the two-month photo-ID campaign. The animals’ movements also vary: some roamed up to 50 km in a single day while others were always photographed in the same area.

Acoustic surveys detected the first right whale in late April – as was the case in 2017 – and have still been locating individuals in recent days.

In the past, right whale sightings in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were anecdotal. They were more commonly found in summer in the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin. In an attempt to explain the increased presence of this species in the Gulf, special attention was paid to their favourite prey: copepods (tiny crustaceans). Data show a decrease in the presence of copepods in the right whale’s critical habitat. This decline has also been observed in the Gulf, but to a lesser extent. The Gulf still contains sufficient copepod biomass to meet the energy needs of right whales. Other areas with similar quantities of copepods have been found, so right whale monitoring may be conducted at these locations in the future.

These findings were reported by Fisheries and Oceans Canada researchers during a technical briefing. They presented the results of discussions of roughly forty experts from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, NOAA, universities and independent research groups. They met last week in Montréal to bring North Atlantic right whale knowledge up to date. Together, they studied 17 scientific articles and attempted to answer 20 questions. An advisory report written by consensus will be published shortly and will be available to the public.

The North Atlantic right whale population is declining, and there has also been a downward trend in the species’ breeding rate since 2010. Today’s population is estimated to be 411 individuals. Following a dramatic season in 2017 when 18 individuals perished and several were found entangled in fishing gear, strict protection measures were introduced in Canadian waters. In 2018, no deaths and three entanglements were reported in Canada. Measures including speed restrictions and fishing zone closures appear to have been beneficial to the species.

A meeting will be held in January to plan the protection measures to be implemented in 2019.

A third North Atlantic right whale has been reported dead this year.

On October 14, 2018, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) vessel Henry B. Bigelow sighted a whale carcass floating in the North Atlantic. The carcass was reported about 100 miles east of Nantucket, Massachusetts. After analyzing the photographs of the carcass, experts confirmed it to be a North Atlantic right whale. The individual was at least 35 feet long, making it a sub-adult. The crew of Bigelow also took additional photographs and samples to help identify and learn more about the individual right whale.

Soon after the initial report, NOAA scientists and members of the U.S. Coast Guard from Air Station Cape Cod started their search for the carcass and were able to locate it based on the last known locations. The carcass showed several wounds indicative of anthropogenic sources with marks consistent with entanglement. However, further investigation is needed to find the cause of death.

With only 100 females of breeding age remaining in the population and no new calves spotted so far in 2018, determining the cause of each death is crucial for this endangered species in order to prevent them.

In 2018, two other carcasses were found in the United States water and none in the Canadian waters.

No dead right whales were found in 2018 in Canadian waters, and only one was discovered on the US side. A total of 135 individual right whales were identified this past summer in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. This suggests that more right whales have visited the Gulf in recent months. In 2017, 114 had been identified, but monitoring efforts were lower, which could have had an impact on the data.

At this point in the year, most of the fisheries that impact marine mammals, including the crab fishery, have ended. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the risks are therefore low that entanglements in fishing gear might occur.

As for maritime traffic, speed limit zones remain in effect. No less than 677 hours of flight time was logged by Transport Canada to monitor the presence of right whales in the region. Monitoring will continue this fall, weather permitting.

Over the next few months, Fisheries and Oceans Canada will meet with fishermen’s associations to assess the impacts of the measures on local communities in order to reflect on the measures to be taken in 2019. An assessment will also be carried out by researchers from the DFO and other organizations where whales have been observed in recent years.

Off the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first right whale of the season was observed during aerial surveillance conducted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. At the present time, it is not found in fishing areas subject to dynamic closure.

For comparison, the first live right whale spotted last year in Canadian waters was observed in March. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, specifically in the snow crab grid affected by static closure, the first right whale was observed on May 17, 2017. Observation data show that between 2014 and 2017, right whales arrived between May 15 and May 31.

On the US side, on May 11, in the Great South Channel south of the Gulf of Maine, 31 right whales were observed by a reconnaissance flight conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life reports that right whales are lingering in the Cape Cod Bay area later in the year than usual. The lobster fishing season in this area has been postponed by two weeks to allow whales to leave the area.

To learn more

Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s page on protecting Canada’s endangered whales

Interactive North Atlantic Right Whale Sightings Map

Researchers call her Kleenex. Known since 1977, this right whale has been swimming with a rope wrapped around her head for 3 years now. On April 12, when she was seen by a team from the Center for Coastal Studies in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts, the rope was still present and the whale appeared to researchers to be weak and thin. An attempt was made to untangle the animal, and part of the rope was cut before the whale disappeared. Since then, weather conditions have not allowed researchers to return to sea to check up on Kleenex.

Kleenex represents a typical case of chronic entanglement; in fact, nearly 85% of right whales suffer a run-in with fishing gear at least once in their lifetimes. And while the snow crab and lobster season has been underway for a few weeks on the Canadian and US east coasts, protective measures have been put into place in both countries in an attempt to reduce the risk of mortality for these endangered whales.

Chronic entanglements affect the reproductive capacity of North Atlantic right whales. The breeding season for this species ended in late March and not a single newborn has been observed. This situation is particularly alarming, as only 450 North Atlantic right whales remain and 18 carcasses of this species have been found in the past 12 months. Kleenex was a particularly productive female. In fact, she is even believed to be the matriarch of nearly 5% of all North Atlantic right whales. She is the mother, grandmother or great-grandmother of approximately twenty whales, making her rescue all the more important and symbolic.

In Canada, Dominic LeBlanc, Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, has announced that the ban on disentanglement operations would be lifted. A moratorium on this activity had been announced last July following the death of rescuer Joe Howlett.

One way to completely avoid entanglements (and ensuing rescue operations) would be to market rope-less fishing gear. “Two years ago, the researchers who came up with this brainstorm thought it was crazy. This year, prototypes are being tested by a few fishermen. Sometimes, solutions require one to think outside the box,” 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.

By François Vachon – The year 2017 was a particularly grim year for right whales. A total of 17 carcasses were discovered in the North Atlantic. Of these, 12 were found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – some animals had succumbed to ship strikes, others to entanglements in fishing gear. At the present time, the endangered population numbers approximately 450 individuals, of which only about 100 females are able to reproduce.

Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada Dominic LeBlanc had previously announced measures to regulate the snow crab fishery. On March 27, Mr. LeBlanc and his colleague, Marc Garneau, held a press conference in Ottawa to announce additional protection measures to safeguard right whales.

Firstly, the fishing season in Area 12 (southern Gulf) will begin earlier in order to allow fishermen to reach their quotas before right whales arrive in the Gulf. A Coast Guard icebreaker will ensure that fishermen in northern New Brunswick are able to head out to sea as early as possible.

Additionally, fishermen will have to remove their equipment from the water no later than June 30, two weeks earlier than in past seasons. Similarly, the number of crab traps they will be allowed to deploy will be reduced compared to 2017. Fishermen will have to monitor their buoys and ropes more rigorously and will be obligated to report any contact with whales. Beginning April 28, fishermen will be required to operate in those areas where no whales have been seen since the start of last year’s season.

Minister Garneau announced that the speed limit would also be imposed earlier this year. From April 28 to November 15, vessels measuring 20 m and over will be required to reduce their speed to 10 knots (18.5 km/h) when sailing in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence. However, they will be able to maintain their normal cruising speed in certain shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island whenever there are no whales. Monitoring to identify right whales will be scaled up both in the air and on the water. Offenders are subject to fines of up to $25,000.

One of the most significant announcements made at the conference is undoubtedly the lifting of the moratorium on rescue operations for whales entangled in fishing gear. This measure was passed last summer following the death of whale rescuer Joe Howlett (article in French). According to Minister LeBlanc, Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently developing a protocol that will ensure the safety of rescue teams during disentanglement operations.

Fishing areas in which whales have been sighted this year will be closed for a period of 15 days. In order for this restriction to be lifted, two aerial patrols will be required to confirm that the whales have indeed left the areas.

Lastly, new prototypes will be tested this season for traps comprising a submerged buoy to which the ropes are attached.

Minister LeBlanc pointed out that the proposed measures were subject to modification and that others could be added, if necessary. He added that Canada must take strong measures to ensure that the reputation of the fishing industry for the protection of endangered species is not further undermined.


To learn more

Right Whale Mortalities: Overview (Whales Online)

New Fishery Management Measures in Effort to Curb Right Whale Mortality (Whales Online)

Ottawa announces new measures to protect right whales (in French, Radio-Canada)

Right whales: Ottawa imposes speed limit for ships in Gulf of St. Lawrence (in French, Le Devoir)

New fishing gear being developed to protect right whales (in French, Radio-Canada)

Four new management measures for the snow crab fishery have been announced by Fisheries and Oceans Canada Minister Dominic LeBlanc with the aim of lowering the risk of entanglements for North Atlantic right whales.

  • The amount of rope floating on the surface shall not exceed 3.7 metres in length when attaching a secondary buoy to a primary buoy. Previously, there was no maximum length.
  • Rope will be marked with the colour specific to each fishing zone, which will help improve traceability.
  • Each buoy shall be identified with a sequential number, in addition to the vessel’s current registration number.
  • Lost fishing gear must be reported to the authorities. This way, the material will be more likely to be found and recovered.

In addition to these four measures, there is also the possibility, ice cover and weather conditions permitting, that the season might be adjusted for a specific zone or for the entire region so that fishing ends before the whales arrive.

More than 80% of right whales will get entangled in fishing gear at least once in their life. In 2015, 85% of North Atlantic right whale deaths along the US east coast were attributed to bycatch. And even when entanglement is not immediately fatal, it can have a long-term effect on the animal’s health and even its ability to reproduce. The measures announced today address a formidable challenge.

“It’s an ongoing job that does not stop with the measures announced today.” – Dominic LeBlanc, Fisheries and Oceans Canada Minister.

“It’s an ongoing job that does not stop with the measures announced today,” confirmed the minister at a news conference in Moncton. Over the next few weeks, the federal government is expected to announce multi-million dollar investments aimed at detecting whales in sensitive areas and avoiding collisions.

On the issue of speed restrictions, the minister described as “very likely” the reinstatement of this measure next summer. He goes on to say that the effectiveness of collision avoidance measures is scientifically proven.

Questioned on the moratorium on right whale disentanglement operations, Minister LeBlanc assured that the government was examining the situation and awaiting the report on the incident that cost the life of fisherman and whaler Joe Howlett last July. Since Monday, members of the Canadian Whale Disentanglement Specialist Group, an organization affiliated with the Canadian Marine Animal Response Alliance, have been meeting in Halifax to address the tricky issue of disentanglement operations.

Robert Michaud, scientific director of the GREMM and coordinator of the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network, attended and listened with his colleagues to the Minister’s announcement. “We are pleased that the federal government is moving forward. The measures announced are all important, but they do not provide significant gains in terms of right whale protection. We are therefore eager to hear the next round of announcements,” he said. As for an earlier start to the fishing season, “it’s an interesting but complex measure. If we open the season earlier, might we see a greater impact on other species such as blue whales?”

News - 12/12/2018

Marie-Ève Muller

Marie-Ève Muller is responsible for GREMM's communications and spokeperson for the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergencies Response Network (QMMERN). As Editor-in-Chief for Whales Online, she devours research and has an insatiable thirst for the stories of scientists and observers. Drawing from her background in literature and journalism, Marie-Ève strives to put the fragile reality of cetaceans into words and images.

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