A North Atlantic right whale spotted earlier this week entangled in ropes off the Gaspé Peninsula may have freed itself and joined a pod in the area, the federal government said Wednesday.
After Coast Guard patrols and extensive flying over an area off the Gulf of St. Lawrence where the whale had been spotted, officials said they were unable to locate the animal on Tuesday.
But the team did spot a pod of 13 North Atlantic right whales in the same area, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc said at a news conference in Shediac.
"It is our hope, or the scientists believe that it is possible, that perhaps the whale freed itself and can be positively identified in the pod of 13 that were recorded yesterday," he said.
On Tuesday, the New England Aquarium identified this latest distressed whale as a male known by the number 3245.
LeBlanc, whose department has suspended rescues of whales entangled in fishing gear, said he is hopeful this one got out of the ropes on its own.
"That might explain why we weren't able to locate the entangled whale that we'd seen the previous day. That's certainly our hope."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which is also trying to find the whale, says the animal will be considered entangled until there is proof it isn't.
At least 13 whales have been found dead this year off the coasts of Canada and New England. Ten were found in Canadian waters, suspected victims of entanglement or collisions with ships.
North Atlantic right whales, among the rarest marine mammals in the world, have shown up in greater than expected numbers this year in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Ottawa has told ships in some areas to slow down.
LeBlanc said the government is working with NOAA from the U.S., Campobello Whale Rescue and various experts to confirm what's happened to entangled 15-year-old whale spotted this week.
The Canadian government is also trying to determine what type of fishing gear entangled the whale, whether the gear was in the area legally or whether it had been lost or abandoned, he said.
Steps to protect
Patrols and flights over the water will continue, LeBlanc said.
"The North Atlantic right whale obviously enjoys a special level of protection because it is under Canadian law and American law listed as an endangered species with maybe 500 left in population," he said.
The federal the government stepped in toward in the end of a crab fishery this summer to try to protect whales from entanglements and later imposed speed limits for ships, but LeBlanc said stricter measures are coming next year.
"The government of Canada will take its responsibility in the coming months to ensure next year's season of potential whale migration will have a different set of rules around fishing gear fishing practices, fishing equipment and probably the question around marine transportation as well, in Canadian waters."
Fishing industry involved
Fisheries and Oceans will work with the fishing industry on the options, which could include changes to gear and ropes and changes to fishing seasons to minimize human interaction with the whales.
"I will have before next season a series of obligatory measures," he said. "They won't be voluntary."
LeBlanc was in Shediac for the North Atlantic Fisheries Ministers Conference, which includes his counterparts from Canada, the European Union, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and the Russian Federation.
He said they discussed international marine conservation.
"We are certainly eager to work with any international partners that have experience with dealing with these difficult situations," LeBlanc said.