Accidental deaths threaten endangered whale

Accidental deaths among the endangered North Atlantic right whale threaten survival of species.

A high number of accidental deaths this year among the endangered North Atlantic right whale threaten the survival of the species, according to conservation groups and marine scientists.

The right whales, which summer off of New England and Canada, are among the most imperilled marine mammals on Earth as populations have only slightly rebounded from the whaling era, when they nearly became extinct.

Twelve of the whales are known to have died since April, meaning about 2 per cent of the population has perished in just a few months, biologist Regina Asmutis-Silvia of the Plymouth, Massachusetts-based group Whale and Dolphin Conservation told The Associated Press this week. She and others who study the whales said this summer has been the worst season for right whale deaths since hunting them became illegal 80 years ago.

“This level of deaths in such a short time is unprecedented,” she said. “I just don’t know that right whales have time for people to figure it out. They need help now.”

Ten of the deaths were off the Atlantic coast of Canada while two were off Massachusetts.

Four of the animals showed evidence of ship strikes while another appeared to have become entangled in fishing gear and at least one is still pending a necropsy, Asmutis-Silvia said. Some were too badly decomposed to determine the cause of death, she said.

Asmutis-Silvia and other conservationists said the deaths are evidence that regulations to prevent strikes and entanglements need to be strengthened in the United States and Canada.

Scott Kraus, head of the New England Aquarium’s right whale research program, said it’s possible that right whales are more vulnerable to hazards now because they’re travelling more because of changes in food availability or warming ocean waters.

“When whales travel more, they put themselves in harm’s way more,” Kraus said.

The 12 deaths are only the observed mortalities, and there could have been additional natural deaths in the wild, Kraus said.

The future of right whale rescue efforts has been a subject of debate since veteran whale rescuer Joe Howlett died on July 10 after freeing a right whale off New Brunswick. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responded by suspending efforts to free whales tangled in fishing lines, and later announced that rescue teams would resume most operations.

Marine regulators in the U.S. and Canada said government is putting a focus on protecting right whales. Speed restrictions have dramatically reduced the number of right whale ship strike deaths, said Mike Asaro, marine mammal and sea turtle branch chief for NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Region.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is using a host of new methods to try to help the whales, including surveillance flights along the Gulf of St. Lawrence coastline and closing a snow crab fishing area, said Sarah Gilbert, a spokeswoman for the department. The Canadian government also recently announced new speed restrictions for ships.

It’s believed 80 to 100 right whales are currently in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

However, the department has suspended responses to entangled right whales following Howlett’s death. “While the entanglement of a whale is an extremely difficult and distressing situation, our first priority is the safety of those involved in marine mammal response,” Gilbert said.

Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said the whales will need more immediate action if they are to recover. Only five baby right whales appear to have been born this year, and the species can’t withstand many years when deaths outnumber births, Kraus said.

“It’s really time, if we care about wild animals, to focus on the right whales,” Mayo said. “Its story is definitely not good.”

Patrick Whittle, The Associated Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

AlleyCATS Okanagan: Pet of the week

Add a little Spritz and Cider to your summer

Kelowna’s COVID-19 cluster jumps to 13 cases

Several areas of the city were exposed to the virus

Air Canada’s non-stop Kelowna to Toronto flights set to resume August 2

Air Canada halted much of its non-stop routes in March due to COVID-19

Rare comet NEOWISE and aurora lights captured in Okanagan

The image was captured over Big Horn Lake near Kelowna with a Pixel 4XL android phone

‘We know people are going to come to Kelowna’: Basran addresses COVID-19 cluster

The mayor said people need to continue following the advice of the medical health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry

Recent surge in COVID-19 cases not unexpected amid Phase Three of reopening: B.C.’s top doc

Keep circles small, wear masks and be aware of symptoms, Dr. Bonnie Henry says

Fundraiser kick-started for Vernon woman battling tongue cancer

Woman’s four-year-old twins are the driving force behind her fight

B.C. NDP changing WorkSafeBC regulations to respond to COVID-19

Employers say reclassifying coronavirus could be ‘ruinous’

Oliver Town Hall reopens to public as COVID-19 test comes back negative

Town Hall was closed briefly as a staff member showed multiple COVID-19 symptoms

Lake Country beachgoers reminded to maintain distance amid COVID-19

Signage, park rangers, park patrol students in place to monitor busy beaches in Central Okanagan

RCMP to investigate hate-motivated vandalism in Summerland

Swastikas and other graffiti spray painted on house and at bandshell

Statistical flaws led to B.C. wolf cull which didn’t save endangered caribou as estimated

Study finds statistical flaws in an influential 2019 report supporting a wolf cull

Baby raccoon rescued from 10-foot deep drainage pipe on Vancouver Island

‘Its cries were loud, pitiful and heartbreaking,’ Saanich animal control officer says

Vancouver Island RCMP respond to reports of man masturbating on bus

52-year-old man charged with committing an indecent act in a public place

Most Read