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

Just Posted

Missing Kelowna woman, Cassy Miller found dead

Miller went missing Nov. 6 and was found 10 days later

Kelowna’s definitive Christmas market list

We’ve prepared a list of every market in the Central Okanagan

Your guide to winter light ups around the Okanagan

From Vernon to Summerland, with a stop in Kelowna, we’ve found some activities for you to enjoy

Three UBC Okanagan students awarded women in tech scholarships

Computer science and math students hope the award will inspire others

Saving salmon: B.C. business man believes hatcheries can help bring back the fish

Tony Allard worked with a central coast First Nation to enhance salmon stocks

High-end B.C. house prices dropping, but no relief at lower levels

But experts say home ownership remains out of reach for many for middle- and lower-income families

Worker killed in collision at B.C. coal mine

Vehicle collision occurred at approximately 10:45 a.m. this morning

B.C. asking for tips on ‘dirty money’ in horse racing, real estate, luxury cars

Action follows a Peter German report on money laundering in B.C. casinos

Canadian dead more than a week after plane crash in Guyana: Global Affairs

Global Affairs said it couldn’t provide further details on the identity of the Canadian citizen

Children between 6 and 9 eligible for $1,200 RESP grant from province

BC Ministry of Education is reminding residents to apply before the deadline

Victoria spent $30,000 to remove John A. Macdonald statue

Contentious decision sparked controversy, apology from mayor

South region forestry workers nearly in legal strike position

Talks broke down between USW and IFLRA, resulting in booking out of provincial mediator

Privacy concerns over credit card use for legal online pot purchases

Worries follow privacy breaches at some Canadian cannabis retailers

Most Read