New Brunswick

Dead right whale was well-known to researchers, had survived ship strike, entanglements

Researchers recognized the whale as a nine-year-old male named Wolverine, because of three characteristic scars on its tail stock.

9-year-old male was sighted drifting off the coast of Gaspé, the first death in Canadian waters in 2019

Pictured in 2011, Wolverine, a male endangered north Atlantic right whale, was found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on June 4. Wolverine was so named for a series of three propeller cuts on his tail stock that reminded researchers of the three blades on the hand of the Marvel comic book character of the same name. (Sheila McKenney/Associated Scientists of Woods Hole/Marineland Right Whale Project)

The dead north Atlantic right whale drifting off Quebec's Gaspé coast had a history of entanglements and was struck by a ship, said officials with the New England Aquarium.

The young whale was sighted Tuesday during an aerial surveillance flight by researchers from the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It's first dead whale in Canadian waters in 2019.

After the massive death toll two years ago, strict regulations surrounding fishing and shipping in the gulf were put in place. There were no deaths in Canadian waters in 2018, and Ottawa has since eased the restrictions.

On Wednesday, all efforts were deployed to locate the whale's body, with planes flying over the Gulf of Saint Lawrence all day.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada also has a vessel on standby, ready to go out if the whale's body is found to place a satellite tag to track it. But the goal is to bring it to shore.

"At this point we don't have any information on why this whale died," said Tonya Wimmer, executive director of the Marine Animal Response Society in Halifax. "It's why finding it and doing the necropsy is so important."

Young whale

Researchers recognized the whale as a nine-year-old male named Wolverine, an animal was well-known to the research community. The whale was identified by three characteristic scars on its tail stock.

The scars were the result of a ship strike during the whale's first few years. It had also survived three entanglements in fishing gear. 

This image of Wolverine was shot off Massachusetts by New England Aquarium researchers as they collected whale exhalations to later analyze for hormone levels. (Liz Burgess/ New England Aquarium under NOAA Permit #14233)

"The population is so small and really every animal at this stage does count. So it is pretty heartbreaking even if it is just one animal," said Wimmer.

"It was news we were hoping not ever to hear again."

Like other right whales, it had been coming to the gulf for the past two years in search of food.

North Atlantic right whales returned to Canadian waters early this year. They were spotted via surveillance planes as early as mid-May.

Measures relaxed

The federal government eased restrictions aimed at protecting north Atlantic right whales this year, based on data from 2018.

The area out of bounds to fishermen was reduced to a third of what it was the year before, and restrictions no longer automatically apply to shallower waters where lobster are fished.

The green dot on the map indicates where the dead right whale was spotted during an aerial surveillance. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

The area where speeding restrictions are in place is also slightly smaller.

But Wimmer said it is too early to tell whether any of those changes played a part.

"Obviously with this population, where the main causes of death have been human activity, that is always a concern," she said. "But right now we don't even have any information on why it died so we can't even sort of speculate."

There are a little more than 400 north Atlantic right whales left in the world.

About the Author

Gabrielle Fahmy is a reporter based in Moncton. She's been a journalist with the CBC since 2014.

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