New Brunswick

Rescue team foiled in first attempt to disentangle right whale

A North Atlantic right whale rescue mission has failed in its first attempt because of how difficult it is to track the endangered animals.

No. 4440 was spotted, then lost because tracking plane had to refuel

Only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remain. (Centre for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

A North Atlantic right whale rescue mission has failed in its first attempt because of how difficult it is to track the endangered animals.

On Tuesday, the Campobello Whale Rescue Team headed out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence to try to locate and disentangle one of the three entangled North Atlantic right whales spotted in recent weeks.

Philip Hamilton, research scientist with the New England Aquarium, said the rescue team lost track of the whale because the plane that was monitoring it needed to refuel and had to go back to dry land.

"They didn't have aerial support to help relocate the whale," he said.

Members of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team in action in July 2018. (Submitted by Neil Green)

The whale they were tracking was No. 4440. Crews from the Canadian Coast Guard and Fisheries and Oceans spotted the whale on June 29, east of Miscou. From their surveillance, it appeared to have a rope around its tail stock and it seemed to be dragging something heavy.

Hamilton said it's the way this whale was entangled that makes it hard to track. There's another whale in the area, named Sagamore, that has a wound on its tale that resembles an entanglement.

"They thought maybe that was the entangled whale because it had a really raw open wound on the tail area," he said.

3 entanglements

The team is continuing to search for the three entangled whales. One, still not identified, was spotted by officials on a Transport Canada plane east of the Gaspé Peninsula, said the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 

The other was identified as No. 4423. It was spotted by researchers east of Miscou and appeared to be trailing a line of rope from underneath its body. 

Officials believe No. 4423 was also entangled in U.S. waters in April.

According to officials, all three whales were spotted in areas where a fishing ban was already implemented. Further zones in the gulf have been closed to fishing.

Backup and surveillance

To locate the entangled whales, the rescue team is depending partly on information from flights by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as a team on a crab fishing vessel, the Jean-Denis Martin.

The boat is carrying a team of researchers from the University of New Brunswick, Dalhousie University, the New England Aquarium and the Canadian Whale Institute.

On Wednesday, they were about 48 kilometres east of Miscou Island. The team is doing photo identification of right whales and detailed plankton sampling as part of an effort to understand the interaction between the whales and their food source.

Hamilton said they're trying to identify as many whales as possible.

"If they find the entangled whale they, you know, relay that information to all the parties and exactly where are they right now," he said.

The windy weather has also been making it difficult to go into open water and be safe, Hamilton said.

"The conditions aren't great today, and they weren't great yesterday either."

Team members will continue to monitor the whales and deploy when they spot an entangled one. They expect the mission to last about a week.

Necropsies on 3 whales

So far this year, six North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters. Two were male and four were female. There are just over 400 right whales left in the world.

Necropsies done on some of the whales revealed that three were killed because of ship strikes. One necropsy was deemed inconclusive.

The fourth whale to be found dead, No. 3815, is the only one that hasn't been brought to land, said Hamilton, so a necropsy is not possible. It's also in an advanced stage of decomposition.

The fifth whale dead whale, No. 3329, is in a remote area on Anticosti Island, which makes a necropsy extremely difficult, Hamilton said. However, researchers have retrieved a biological sample from it.

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