New Brunswick

3 North Atlantic right whales partially freed from fishing gear

Rescue teams spent a good part of July trying to free three north Atlantic right whales entangled in fishing gear.

A 4th entangled whale, at least 40 years old, appears to be anchored off Magdalen Islands

An 18-year-old whale first seen entangled off the Gaspé coast is now in Cape Cod Bay, where rescuers tried to free it. (Centre for Coastal Studies/NOAA Permit #18786-03)

As crews tried to figure out how to get to a North Atlantic right whale caught in fishing gear off the Magdalen Islands, rescuers said they've been able to partially free three of the giant mammals this summer.   

A massive operation took place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during much of July, involving Canadian and U.S. government departments, after three of the endangered animals were found entangled in fishing gear.

On Tuesday, a Fisheries and Oceans surveillance flight spotted a fourth entangled whale, this one about 90 kilometres northwest of the Magdalen Islands. 

Because of the whale's remote location, the department was looking Wednesday at options to get close to it, although the weather is not expected to be good enough to go out until early next week.

"This is a really tough case," said Mackie Greene, director of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team.

The whale is an older male, first spotted in 1979 and known as Snake Eyes. It appears to be anchored to the bottom of the ocean, according to Greene. 

Fisheries and Oceans said the whale had last been observed on July 16, swimming freely in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

A fourth entangled right whale was spotted Tuesday by aerial surveillance crews 90 kilometres off the Magdalen Islands. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

Greene, a fisherman, spent a large part of July in the waters of the gulf, getting up close to North Atlantic right whales.

His team partially freed two five-year-old male right whales, seen entangled off the coast of Miscou Island in northeastern New Brunswick. They removed a heavy weight one of them was trailing.

A third whale, an 18-year-old male, was found entangled earlier this summer off the Gaspé coast, but has since made its way down to Cape Cod Bay along Massachusetts.

Campobello Whale Rescue Team director Mackie Greene spent a large part of July in the Gulf of St. Lawrence working to free entangled whales. (CBC)

While the whale was in the gulf, rescuers attached a satellite tag to help track it. The mammal's entanglement was considered both "challenging" and "horrific" by scientists.

Its physical condition deteriorated significantly after it was first seen July 4. According to scientists in Massachusetts, it was thin and covered in lice. The fishing rope prevented the whale from opening its mouth at one point. 

A rescue team with the Centre for Coastal Studies cut 90 metres of rope during a rescue operation Friday.

"You feel bad, because you know these whales aren't healthy," said Greene.

Crew members attempt to disentangle a whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in this photo from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Alison Ogilvie/NOAA Fisheries)

Although the operation in Canadian waters to free the two five-year-old whales is not as active anymore, the work never ends. If the two animals are spotted again, the rescue team will try to reach them if it's safe to try. 

"The animals are only going to become weaker and more emaciated and sicker as the ropes damage them," said Sean Brilliant, senior scientist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

"It's never too late and it's never considered a lost cause."

There are only about 400 right whales left on the planet. Eight have been found dead in Canadian waters since June.

Three of this year's deaths were linked to vessel strikes.


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


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