New Brunswick

Search for entangled right whale in Bay of Fundy suspended for safety reasons

Three rescue boats and a Fisheries and Oceans Canada aerial team had to call off their search again Tuesday for an entangled North Atlantic right whale, spotted in the Bay of Fundy, east of Grand Manan island, Monday morning.

Fog closed in on teams searching for endangered male spotted near Grand Manan

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team is helping with the search in the Bay of Fundy. (Submitted by Neil Green)

Three rescue boats and a Fisheries and Oceans Canada aerial team had to call off their search again Tuesday for an entangled North Atlantic right whale, spotted in the Bay of Fundy, east of Grand Manan island, Monday morning.

Jerry Conway, an adviser with the Canadian Whale Institute and a member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, said fog reduced visibility to less than half a kilometre by mid-afternoon, creating unsafe conditions for the crews.

Members of the Campobello team, the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station team, and New England Aquarium team hope to resume the search Wednesday, weather permitting, he said.

Conway remains optimistic they'll be able to find the whale, identified as a 10-year-old male dragging an orange buoy.

But until they determine exactly how entangled it is, it's unclear if they'll be able to free it completely.

The whale did not appear to be too distressed when spotted Monday, he said.

'Swimming relatively easily'

"The whale was swimming relatively easily, it appeared, and it was diving on occasions, so it appeared the whale wasn't having any serious problems in its normal behaviour."

Still, the crews are anxious to reach the endangered whale and remove as much of the fishing gear as possible.

There are only an estimated 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. Of those, only about 100 are breeding females and no calves were born this year.

Since January 2017, there have been at least 19 deaths of such whales in U.S. and Canadian waters — 12 off the Canadian coast. 

Jerry Conway, an adviser with the Canadian Whale Institute and a member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, said fog reduced visibility, hampering efforts to find the whale. (CBC)

Necropsies on seven of the carcasses last year determined four whales died of blunt force trauma from collisions with ships, while the other three likely died of entanglements.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced a number of measures designed to protect the whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence earlier this year, including a system of static and temporary fishing closures and speed restrictions for ships.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada will continue to conduct aerial surveillance and work with the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, other partners and industry over the coming days to find the whale and assess its condition, according to an emailed statement. 

Departmental vessels will provide support and assistance as required at that time, it said.

The Grand Manan Fishermen's Association has also offered to help, said Conway.

Whales can travel hundreds of kilometres while entangled in fishing gear, fisheries officials have said. (International Fund for Animal Welfare)

The entangled whale was spotted Monday about 9 a.m. by members of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabirds Research Station team, approximately 22 nautical miles east of Grand Manan.

The team from New England was able to locate the whale around 11 a.m., but is not equipped or qualified to perform rescues, said Conway.

They stayed with the whale, awaiting the arrival of the Campobello rescue team.

We're very cautious these days on how we approach and who does do a disentanglement.- Jerry Conway, Campobello Whale Rescue Team

It was difficult for them to stand by without attempting to disentangle the whale, said Conway, but the death of whale rescue volunteer Joe Howlett last summer underscored the possible dangers.

Howlett, 59, who ​co-founded the Campobello team in 2002, was killed on July 10, 2017, after freeing a whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Shippagan.

"So we're very cautious these days on how we approach and who does do a disentanglement," said Conway. "We want people with experience and knowledge doing it."

While the New England team was monitoring the latest entangled whale Monday, they identified it as one previously catalogued by the New England Aquarium as No. 3843.

North Atlantic right whales have unique, distinct patterns on their heads, which researchers use to identify them.

New entanglement

Whale No. 3843 has been sighted on a number of occasions over the years, but this is the first time there has been any indication it's entangled, said Conway.

Four members of the Campobello team set out around 10:30 a.m. and got about halfway there, but were forced to turn back at around noon due to a mechanical problem with their vessel, which is "at least" 25 years old.

Heavy fog, strong wind and two-metre high waves also hampered their efforts, he said.

The team acquired the rigid-hulled inflatable pontoon boat from Fisheries and Oceans Canada in 2002. "At that time it was surplus and we've been keeping it going ever since," said Conway.

"So it's on its last legs, basically… We have to patch it and push it on occasion, so we're hoping to have it replaced in the near future."

On Monday, fuel wasn't getting to the engine, but one of the team members, who is proficient dealing with outboard motors, managed to fix the problem.

The three teams resumed their search early Tuesday morning, dividing an area measuring approximately 40 square miles into three sections.

They searched for several hours before deteriorating conditions forced the suspension of the search.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the teams could be dealing with poor weather conditions for a couple of days.