U.S. officials locate dead North Atlantic right whale off coast of Virginia

Fisheries officials in the United States located the carcass of a North Atlantic right whale off the coast of Virginia on Friday, making it the first confirmed death of the endangered species this year.

Carcass reported earlier this week now tagged with satellite tracker for future necropsy

At least 18 North Atlantic right whales have now died in Canadian and U.S. last year and this winter. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

Fisheries officials in the United States located the carcass of a North Atlantic right whale off the coast of Virginia on Friday, making it the first confirmed death of the endangered species this year.

At noon, a Coast Guard aircraft spotted the entangled dead whale reported earlier this week, said Jennifer Goebel, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Charter vessel GAME ON with Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program staff aboard, along with assistance from the NOAA twin otter plane, were then able to locate and satellite tag the carcass," Goebel said in an email to CBC News.

The tag will allow officials to track the carcass and send a vessel out to tow it back to shore for a necropsy within the next couple of weeks, as weather permits, she said.

A voluntary slow-speed zone declared for the area on Thursday after four live North Atlantic right whales were spotted there remains in effect until Feb. 7, said Goebel, urging mariners to slow down and keep an eye out.

At least 17 North Atlantic right whales were found dead last year — 12 in Canadian waters and five in U.S. waters. Scientists believe human activity, including shipping and fishing, was the primary cause.

There are only an estimated 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc says he's confident U.S. fisheries offcials will conduct an appropriate investigation and get to the bottom of the latest death.

"The Americans have been global leaders in this effort [to protect North Atlantic right whales] for a long time," he said.

Dominic LeBlanc, minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, believes starting the snow crab fishing season 'as soon as possible' is one of the best measures the Canadian government can take to protect North Atlantic right whales. (CBC)
In a bid to prevent whale entanglements in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, LeBlanc has instructed the Canadian Coast Guard to come up with a plan to use ice-breakers to help start the snow crab fishing season earlier than the usual mid-April.

Starting earlier would also mean ending earlier — and getting the fishing gear out of the whales' way sooner, said LeBlanc.

He believes it's one of the best steps the Canadian government can take to reduce the risk to the whales.

I'll continue to insist that they be ready to start the crab season as early as possible.- Dominic LeBlanc , Fisheries and Coast Guard minister

"If we can use Coast Guard ice breakers to open certain harbours in northern New Brunswick or in Gaspé, Que., earlier and allow the fishing fleets to start fishing earlier — further out from shore, on the outer banks where the whales had first arrived last June, that would probably represent a very significant improvement in the safety of those endangered species," said LeBlanc.

"So I've asked the Coast Guard to prepare operational plans that would allow them to bring ice breakers to open those ports," he said.

"The problem is we'll only know sort of at the last minute exactly when and how that will be possible" because the Coast Guard has other safety and economic obligations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and around the coast of Newfoundland, among other areas, which "necessarily have to have a priority," said LeBlanc.

The confirmed deaths of 17 North Altantic right whales last year represented a four per cent loss in the endangered species' population. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"So they're going to work on plans and I'm confident they'll come up with solutions and I'll continue to insist that they be ready to start the crab season as early as possible."

Earlier this week, LeBlanc announced ​four changes to the snow crab fishery in the southern gulf — the first in a series of measures expected in the coming weeks and months aimed at better protecting the whales.

The new rules include reducing the amount of rope floating on the surface and mandatory reporting of all lost gear, as well as using colour-coded rope and sequentially numbered buoys to identify the gear's place of origin.

Penalties set out in legislation

LeBlanc expressed "surprise" during that Tuesday announcement about the more than 500 reported speed limit violations in the western part of the gulf last year and questioned whether the penalties should be stiffer.

He suggested the minimum $6,000 fines issued to the 14 ships confirmed to date of exceeding the 10-knot restriction does not represent a sufficient deterrent and is not proportionate to the seriousness of the offence.

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir William Alexander was one of the 14 vessels fined $6,000 for exceeding the whale-protecting speed limit in the gulf last year. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

Transport Canada responded Thursday saying the penalty for a vessel found to be in violation of the speed limit is stipulated by the Shipping Act, which sets the minimum at $6,000 and the maximum at $25,000.

"The penalty for a first offence is $6,000 unless there are aggravating circumstances," said Julie Leroux, a spokesperson with Transport Canada in an emailed statement.

"Transport Canada had previously begun a review of the amount of the administrative monetary penalties as part of our ongoing regulatory modernization work," she said without elaborating.

LeBlanc has said the government will "most likely" impose speed restrictions for vessels again.

78 alleged violations pending

The speed restriction, imposed on Aug. 11 for vessels measuring 20 metres or more in length, was lifted on Jan. 11 to ensure ships could maintain manoeuvrability in winter conditions and because no whales had been spotted in the area for weeks.

About 4,711 vessel transits occurred during that five-month period, Transport Canada officials have said. Violations were reported in 542 cases, but 450 of those have been closed due to insufficient evidence.

Thirty-four cases are still under review and 44 are pending review.

The 14 fined vessels included a Canadian Coast Guard vessel, cruise ships, cargo ships and an oil tanker.

The speeds in 13 of the cases ranged from 10.5 knots to 13.3 knots. The alleged speed in the fourteenth case has not been released yet because it is still within the 30-day appeal period.

The U.S. government is asking mariners to slow down to 10 knots or less in the red zone located 86 nautical miles east-southeast of Virginia Beach or to go around the area to avoid striking the four live North Atlantic right whales spotted there on Tuesday. (NOAA)

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared a new voluntary slow-speed zone in the mid-Atlantic to protect four live North Atlantic right whales spotted in the area on Tuesday.

The U.S. agency is asking mariners travelling 86 nautical miles east-southeast of Virginia Beach to slow down to 10 knots or less or to reroute.

That is the same general area where the entangled dead whale was first seen, NOAA said.

Based on a photograph of the carcass the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program received on Wednesday night and NOAA's previous experience with whale entanglements, officials believe the whale was alive and swimming when it encountered the line.

Based on current mortality and birth rates, scientists say North Atlantic right whales could become extinct within 20 years.


CBC New Brunswick launched Deep Trouble: a podcast series that brings together the interviews and stories by CBC journalists who covered a deadly summer for the North Atlantic right whale. Listen to the full discussion and subscribe to the Deep Trouble podcast from the CBC Podcast page or subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.

With files from Radio-Canada