New Brunswick

2nd North Atlantic right whale death 'heartbreaking' for researchers

The death of a female right whale is a huge blow to the endangered species, says a right whale researcher.

Only 411 right whales remain, according to the Marine Animal Response Society

Two North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence so far this year.  (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

The death of a female North Atlantic right whale is another huge blow to the endangered species, a right whale researcher says.

The whale, known as Punctuation, was spotted floating dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence last Wednesday during a Transport Canada surveillance flight. She was nicknamed for the small scars on her head that looked like dashes and commas.

Tonya Wimmer, executive director of the Marine Animal Response Society in Halifax, said the whale was one of the more "reproductively successful females."

"That hits the population even harder," she said.

She said the 38-year-old whale had already given birth to eight calves — her first in 1986 and her last in 2016. And she could have produced another 14 more calves in her lifetime.

"It's heartbreaking," she said. 

2nd right whale death in 2019 

Wimmer said the animal is still floating at sea, but the body has been tagged by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which is tracking the whale. 

"The weather was not great so we do need her to come ashore to conduct a necropsy to try to figure out what happened," she said.

This is the second right whale death in the Gulf of St. Lawrence so far this year. 

The carcass of a right whale known as Wolverine was discovered on June 4. The animal was towed to Miscou Island, where a necropsy was performed.

An assessment came back inconclusive, but officials with Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the death did not appear to be caused by a vessel strike or entanglement in fishing gear.

"Just losing yet another one, especially on top of one we lost only just over a few weeks ago now, makes it incredibly difficult for everyone involved on both sides of the border," she said.

Wolverine, a nine-year-old North Atlantic right whale, was the first whale death reported in 2019. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

Wimmer said biologists, researchers, conservation officers and government officials in Canada and the United States have been working hard to save the species.

"Because of that I think we have a really good chance of trying to turn the tide for this animal," she said. "Hopefully that is exactly the direction it will eventually go."

'Every animal counts'

No right whales died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2018, but 12 were found dead the year prior.

"I think all of us, were hoping that was the last time we'd ever see one," she said. 

Necropsies on seven of those whales found four died from trauma consistent with vessel collisions, while two deaths were the result of entanglement in fishing gear.

Meanwhile, the federal government eased restrictions aimed at protecting North Atlantic right whales this year, based on data from 2018.

Wimmer said there are 411 North Atlantic right whales left worldwide and only 100 reproductively active females. 

"From a perspective, with a population like this, which is so very, very small, every animal obviously counts, male or female," she said.

"But in the case of this particular situation, females are very, very important because it's not just them, it's every baby that they will have in their lifetime."       

With files from Information Morning Fredericton, Information Morning Moncton, Susan Bradley