Three North Atlantic right whales have washed ashore on western Newfoundland's coast in the last few weeks, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), with the number of recent confirmed deaths of the endangered animals in Atlantic Canada now at nine.
"It is a catastrophe, to say the least," said Sigrid Kuehnemund, lead specialist in oceans for the World Wildlife Fund.
Last week, DFO was investigating a dead whale in Chimney Cove, just south of Trout River on the Northern Peninsula, to determine if it was a new death or one of the seven that were previously recorded in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer.
Now, DFO says two more dead right whales have been found at Cape Ray and Cedar Cove. Cape Ray is near Port aux Basques while Cedar Cove is near Lark Harbour in the Bay of Islands.
Nine North Atlantic right whale deaths have been reported overall since early June.
"There's some preliminary studies that show the deaths are related to human activities," Kuehnemund said.
"Necropsies that have been undertaken by primary responders and DFO from some of the dead whales do show evidence of blunt trauma, which would be ship strikes."
One of the latest dead whales was found trailing fishing gear, with rope in its mouth and around its fin.
At least one of the whales has now been confirmed as a new death, which would bring the total number of right whale deaths to nine so far this summer. DFO is investigating to determine the identity of the other two, and their cause of death.
"Nine deaths represent one to two per cent of that population, it's a critically endangered population so these deaths are certainly catastrophic," Kuehnemund said.
The area in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is very busy with human activity since it connects central and eastern Canada to international shipping markets.
"We need the government to work with all stakeholders in the Gulf of St. Lawrence including the fishing and shipping industries other stakeholders, scientists and academics, NGOs like ourselves to reduce those direct threats," she said.
Changing ship speeds and shipping lanes as well as looking at timing could help mitigate the impact ships are having on the declining population.
Initially, the carcass at Cedar Cove was thought to be that of a humpback or fin whale. However DFO's Dr. Jack Lawson has now confirmed that it is a North Atlantic right whale.
Lawson told CBC last week that there were only 468 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. Nova Scotia researchers peg the population a little higher, at just more than 500 whales.