Fog hinders search for entangled right whale in Bay of Fundy for 3rd day

Fog hindered the search for an endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing gear in the Bay of Fundy for a third consecutive day Wednesday.

Endangered whale spotted Monday near Grand Manan Island appears thinner than last sighting in June

The whale, photographed Monday near Grand Manan Island with an orange buoy in tow, was identified by the New England Aquarium, based on the pattern on callosities, or raised, roughened skin near its blowhole, that is unique to each right whale. (Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium)

Fog hindered the search for an endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing gear in the Bay of Fundy for a third consecutive day Wednesday.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada conducted an aerial search of the bay in the morning, and the Canadian Coast Guard boat Geliget also searched for the whale, first spotted east of Grand Manan Island on Monday morning.

But by early Wednesday afternoon, the fog became too thick to continue, according Jerry Conway, a member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team.

The only way you'd find the whale in this type of weather is you bump into it.- Jerry Conway,  Campobello  Whale Rescue Team

"The only way you'd find the whale in this type of weather is you bump into it, and that's the last thing we need to do," he said.

The Campobello team and fishery officers from the Grand Manan detachment remain on standby to respond "if necessary," Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in an emailed statement early Wednesday evening.

The aerial search will resume on Thursday, weather permitting, according to the statement.

Conway said the Campobello rescue boat is fuelled up and the volunteer team members are "ready to go at a moment's notice" if the whale is spotted but will not be going out to actively search for the whale, identified as a 10-year-old male, No. 3843.

"The area now is far too big for a small boat to search," he said.

Whale 'could be anywhere'

Members of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team in action back in July. They're hoping to free a North Atlantic right whale that's currently entangled in the Bay of Fundy. (Submitted by Neil Green)

North Atlantic right whales can travel 30 square kilometres in five minutes and although the whale is dragging an orange buoy, it could be far from where it was last seen, approximately 22 nautical miles east of Grand Manan.

"It could be anywhere in the Bay of Fundy; in fact it could even be down in the Gulf of Maine by now," he said.

"We're depending on either whale watchers or fishing boats that may be out there, or the [DFO] aircraft to sight it and if they sight it, then we're ready to deploy our team to go out there and do the disentanglement."

The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., has also been alerted and has a team on standby in case the whale shows up in U.S. waters, he said.

Health deteriorating

The Campobello team, Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station team, New England Aquarium team and the Fisheries and Oceans Canada aerial team had to call off their search Tuesday by mid-afternoon when the fog reduced visibility to less than half a kilometre, creating unsafe conditions for the crews.

On Monday, fog, strong winds and two metre-high waves, along with mechanical problems with their vessel forced the Campobello team to turn back.

The conditions weren't much better Wednesday, with fog patches and winds of up to 37 km/h.

"It'll be a bumpy ride for sure," Conway said. "Under the circumstances, if it's sighted, we'll take a chance and do it."

Important to dwindling population

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

The rescue team is anxious to locate the whale because it appears thinner than when it was last spotted free of any fishing gear in early June.

"It's a very big concern," said Conway, who is also an adviser with the Canadian Whale Institute.

The way the whale is entangled could be hampering its ability to feed, he said.

North Atlantic right whales are an endangered species. 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.

"This is a 10-year-old male that can make a viable contribution to the overall population once it finds a partner," Conway said. "And with it not being able to do so, we've lost one of the important elements of the right whale population — a productive male."

"Every one of them is important that we save."

Conway said some entangled whales have survived for months, even a year, with lines that have become embedded in their bodies. (International Fund for Animal Welfare)

The aerial search proved challenging Wednesday, given the size of the bay, the fog patches and the "very small target," said Conway.

The whale is about 18 metres long, but it only surfaces about every five minutes and only about half of its back would be visible.

The orange buoy trailing behind it is only about eight inches, or 20 centimetres, in diameter and about a third of a metre high.

"Even the slightest amount of fog can hamper the search."

The aerial team tried to cover as much of the bay as it could — "time and fuel allowing" — searching in tracks eight kilometres apart.

Staying positive

Conway remains optimistic the whale will be found and the Campobello rescue team will have an opportunity to untangle it from the buoy.

"If we weren't able to maintain our optimism, we wouldn't be in this business 'cause most times it can be extremely frustrating and not rewarding, but the few times we do have a successful disentanglement of course it makes a big difference and it keeps us going."

Entangled whales can survive anywhere from a day or two up to a year or more, depending on the extent and nature of the entanglement, he said.

The whale "looked healthy" when spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June, the last known sighting prior to this entanglement, said Tony LaCasse, spokesperson for the New England Aquarium.

"He has been seen almost every year since his birth, primarily in the Bay of Fundy and off the southeastern U.S. He was not sighted in 2013 and 2015, which is when right whale sightings became more erratic," LaCasse said in an email.

The New England Aquarium identifies and documents right whales, based on the pattern of callosities, or raised, roughened skin near their blowholes, which is unique to each whale.

No. 3843 is the 2008 calf of Magic, No. 1243, and has five siblings.

His sister Lucky, No. 2143, died in 2005, at the age of 14, when propeller cuts she suffered as a calf opened up during her first pregnancy, he said.

Since January 2017, there have been at least 18 North Atlantic right whale deaths in U.S. and Canadian waters — 12 off the Canadian coast.

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.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton