New Brunswick

Whale expert 'taken aback' by entangled right whale's rapid deterioration

An endangered North Atlantic right whale that's entangled in fishing gear in the Bay of Fundy may only survive a few months if rescue teams aren't able to find it, according to an expert.

Endangered 10-year-old male may only survive a few months without help, says Scott Landry

The deep concave shape of the entangled whale's back shows it's emaciated, said New England Aquarium officials. (Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life/New England Aquarium)

An endangered North Atlantic right whale that's entangled in fishing gear in the Bay of Fundy may only survive a few months if rescue teams aren't able to find it, according to an expert.

A Fisheries and Oceans plane searched for the whale again on Thursday despite persistent fog, but no search boats were in the water, said spokesperson Vance Chow.

The whale, a 10-year-old male identified as No. 3843, has not been seen since Monday when it was first spotted east of Grand Manan dragging an orange buoy.

This animal has gone downhill very rapidly.- Scott Landry, Center for Coastal Studies

The origin and type of fishing gear remains unknown, said Chow.

Scott Landry, director of the Marine Animal Entanglement Response program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., believes the entanglement is "severe" and that each passing day is a concern.

"This animal has gone downhill very rapidly," he said after comparing photographs of the whale taken Monday with those taken in June, when researchers spotted it swimming gear-free in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

"I was taken aback by the condition of the whale," Landry added.

Healthy North Atlantic right whales normally have jet-black skin and a huge amount of blubber, said Landry.

The entangled whale's skin is "quite pale" and it has lost weight. He said the connection between its spine and skull has become apparent because there's no fat covering it.

There are also large patches of whale lice all over its body, which indicates "something wrong has been going on for a while."

"There's obviously something very, very severe about this entanglement," said Landry. 

'Extremely painful'

He suspects the whale's mouth is entangled, preventing it from being able to feed properly and it's living off the layers of fat it would have put on in the spring.

"My best guess … I would think this whale only has a few more months left in it, quite frankly," adding those few months will be "extremely painful."

Scott Landry, who leads the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team in Provincetown, Mass., said the exact nature and extent of any entanglement is difficult to determine because the whales are moving and the water isn't clear enough to know what's going on beneath the surface. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

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.

Landry's team, part of the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network, which stretches from the Bay of Fundy to Florida, is on standby in case the entangled whale ends up in U.S. waters.

He thinks it's unlikely because North Atlantic right whales are traditionally only found off the southern coast of New England between January and April.

But researchers have found that when whales are in distress and not able to perform their normal behaviours, they end up "wandering around."

North Atlantic right whale No. 3843, shown here gear-free on June 6, 2018, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, has been sighted on a number of occasions over the years, but Monday was the first time there has been any indication it's entangled. (Peter Duley/NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center)

"They arrive out of season in some of their habitats, just trying to do something to solve their own problem … just hoping for something to change."

Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Campobello Rescue Team, other partners and industry will continue to actively look for the whale and assess its condition, weather permitting.

Fog Monday through Wednesday forced crews to suspend their search efforts.

Rescue boat 'a floating bomb'

The Campobello team also had a problem with its boat on Monday. It was leaking fuel, said team member Jerry Conway.

The volunteers noticed a strong smell of gasoline and when they checked, "they found they were sitting on about five gallons [nearly 20 litres] of gasoline that had leaked into the bilge" from a connection between the fuel tank and engine.

"So they were virtually sailing on a floating bomb," said Conway. "The people that smoke … weren't going to on the way [back to port,] that's for certain."

"With a bit of ingenuity" and a cement-type compound, they were able to fix the problem.

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team, shown here in action in July, is hoping to get about $30,000 from the federal government for a new boat to replace their existing boat, which is at least 25 years old and had a fuel leak Monday. (Submitted by Neil Green)