Six North Atlantic Right Whales have been found dead in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada this month. Could this mean a tragic and short future for the entire species? The North Atlantic Right whale is one of the most endangered large whale species in the world, with less than 450 individuals left. They are a baleen whale species that live off the coast of North America, feeding on zooplankton and copepods in Canada and New England during spring to fall months. Migrating to the warm waters of South Carolina and Georgia to give birth during the winter (NOAA). This 1000 mile journey through unprotected waters makes them extremely vulnerable.

The frightfully small population size is due to being hunted to near extinction during the 19th and early 20th century. In fact, they were named the Right Whale because they were the “right” whale to hunt. They travel slowly and float after they die making them an easy target. Although they have been protected under the endangered species act since the 1970s The North Atlantic Right Whale has not seen a significant recovery in population. They are unable to successfully rebound from such a small population because of low reproductive rates and high mortality rates. While protected from being hunted, humans are still the greatest threat to the North Atlantic Right Whale. A recent study “Gross and histopathologic diagnoses from North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacialis mortalities between 2003 and 2018” found that 88.4% of deaths of North Atlantic Right Whales were caused by humans: 57.9% from entanglement and 42.1% from vessel strikes (S. M. Sharp). From the six whales found this month only one has a confirmed cause of death–fatal injury from vessel strike (D. Abel). 

These six deaths are a significant loss to the dwindling population, but it’s not as shocking compared to two years ago when 3% of the entire species was lost. 2017 was declared an unusual mortality event by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), marking the highest number of deaths recorded in one year. 17 North Atlantic Right Whales were found deceased between the United States (5) and Canada (12)(S.M. Sharp). Albeit, with six deaths in one month this year may surpass 2017. Both the US and Canada have vessel restrictions, fishing guidelines and equipment in place to reduce the mortality rate for this endangered whale. For instance, since 2017 Canada has placed mandatory speed restrictions for the Gulf of St. Lawrence, “vessels over 20 meters cannot travel over 10 knots” and a hefty fine of up to $25,000 if found non compliant (Transport Canada). Also special fishing gear has been fashioned for easy release to prevent chronic entanglement. Yet they are not proving to be effective enough to save this gentle giant. If mortality rates continue the way they have in the last two decades the North Atlantic Right Whale might cease to exist. 

-Rachael Bradbury, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Stockton University

Sources:

S. M. Sharp, M. J. Moore, et al. June 20, 2019. “Gross and histopathologic diagnoses from North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacialis mortalities between 2003 and 2018” Diseases of Aquatic Organisms, vol. 135: 1-31 https://www.int-res.com/articles/feature/d135p001.pdf

D. Abel. June 27, 2019 “Sixth North Atlantic right whale found dead in Canadian waters” Boston Globe. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/06/27/fifth-north-atlantic-right-whale-found-dead-canadian-island/4wlUqTDEmeKuQs6iKcuEyH/story.html

Noaa “North Atlantic Right Whale” https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/north-atlantic-right-whale

Transport Canada June 14, 2019  “Protecting North Atlantic Right Whales from Collisions with Ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.” https://www.tc.gc.ca/en/services/marine/navigation-marine-conditions/protecting-north-atlantic-right-whales-collisions-ships-gulf-st-lawrence.html