Right Whales: the Situation in 2018

  • La baleine noire surnommée Kleenex a été photographiée le 12 avril dernier, avec un cordage enroulé autour de sa tête. La photo a été prise quelques secondes avant qu'une fléchette coupante ne touche la corde pour tenter de dépêtrer la baleine. // The right whale called Kleenex is taking a breath at the surface, just as the cutting arrow approaches the entangling rope around her upper jaw. © Center for Coastal Studies, NOAA permit #18786
    18 / 10 / 2018 Par Marie-Ève Muller - / / /

    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

    October 14, 2018 | Third Right Whale Found Dead

    Une carcasse de baleine noire de l’Atlantique Nord en décomposition avancée a été retrouvée à environ 100 milles nautiques à l’est de Nantucket, Massachusetts, le 14 octobre 2018. © Garde-Côtière des États-Unis, AMT3 Garret Vaughan/NMFS Permit #18786-03/A decomposing North Atlantic right whale carcass found afloat about 100 miles east of Nantucket, Massachusetts on October 14, 2018. © US Coast Guard, AMT3 Garret Vaughan/NMFS Permit #18786-03

    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.

    September 7, 2018 | Right Whales: “The measures worked,” says Fisheries and Oceans Canada

    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.

    May 16, 2018 | First Right Whale Spotted in Canadian Waters

    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.

    Click on the map to enlarge it. © Fisheries and Oceans Canada

    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

    April 24, 2018 | An Entangled Right Whale Named Kleenex

    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.

    The right whale called Kleenex was photographed in 2002 in front of Gaspé, in the St. Lawrence gulf.

    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.

    April 3, 2018 | Federal Government Announces New Protective Measures for Right Whales

    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)


    January 24, 2018 | New Fishery Management Measures in Effort to Curb Right Whale Mortality

    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?”