New Brunswick

4 mother-calf pairs of right whales spotted in Gulf of St. Lawrence

Four of the seven North Atlantic right whale calves known to have been born this winter made it to the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer, according to a group of scientists.

Researchers collect 199 photos of more than 70 North Atlantic right whales in gulf

Researchers took a photo of a mother whale with her calf in the Gulf of St. Lawrence while on a 15-day research mission. (ACCOL/NEAQ and Canadian Whale Institute)

Four of the seven North Atlantic right whale calves known to have been born this winter made it to the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer, according to a group of scientists.

Amy Knowlton, a research scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston, and Kimberly Davies, an assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick, met with journalists on Wednesday after returning from a 15-day research trip in the region.

Knowlton said the researchers collected 199 photographs of more than 70 right whales that have been spotted this summer, including four mother-calf pairs.

"We don't know where the other three are, but four are here and are in good shape," she said in Shippagan, N.B., on Wednesday.

Twelve North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Canadian waters in 2017, and while there were no deaths in 2018, there were also no births that year.

Earlier this year, researchers breathed a sigh of relief after seven right whale calves were seen off the southern U.S. coast. 

Researchers took photos and videos of a mother whale with her calf in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 1:07

'Discouraging entanglements'

During the trip, the scientists spotted three entangled right whales, which Knowlton said "is a bit discouraging."

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team, with support from government vessels and planes, were able to partially disentangle two of the three whales and are tracking the third.

Knowlton said scientists also saw individual whales they recognized, and collected skin and fecal samples to test later on.

The tail of an entangled whale swimming in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer. (ACCOL/NEAQ and Canadian Whale Institute)

She said all that data will support long-term studies. They'll also look at the photos in search of "human-related scarring," such as scars caused by entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes.

The fecal and skin samples will be analyzed for hormones and genetics, she said.

"So it's sort of a multifaceted effort that we're doing."

Eight right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters this year. Three of the deaths were linked to vessel strikes, and none have been linked yet to fishing gear entanglement.

'Incredibly successful mission'

UNB's Davies said she was on the boat to study the whale's food source: the rice-sized plankton called copepods. 

Crab fisherman Martin Noel, captain of the Jean-Denis Martin boat, took the researchers out on this mission. On the back deck of his boat are a number of instruments used to study the foraging behaviour of the whales.

If we can keep from killing them from these human activities, I think the population will thrive and continue to reproduce in more numbers.- Amy Knowlton, New England Aquarium

Davies said understanding the whale's food population and distribution is instrumental in understanding more about what's driving them to come to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This research will also help scientists understand how much food there is for the whales and whether it's enough to support the population

"Right now [the gulf] seems to be the only viable foraging habitat for these animals in Canadian waters," Davies said.

Davies said they were able to get more than 100 samples near foraging right whales, which makes it "an incredibly successful mission from a data collection standpoint."

Amy Knowlton, a research scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston, met with journalists after a 15-day North Atlantic right whale research trip in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Turning the trend around

Although only about 400 whales are left, Knowlton said they are not "past the point of no return." The whales were hunted to near extinction and, until they were protected in 1935, they were thought to be functionally extinct.

"We've seen numbers as low as 300 in this population starting in the mid-1990s," she said. "If we can keep from killing them from these human activities, I think the population will thrive and continue to reproduce in more numbers."

She said there's no firm number of how low the population can get until it's not genetically viable, but "we're nowhere close to that point." 

The goal is to reach a few thousand, she said.

About the Author

Hadeel Ibrahim is a CBC reporter based out of Saint John. She can be reached at hadeel.ibrahim@cbc.ca

With files from Shane Fowler

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.