New Brunswick

2 North Atlantic right whales entangled off New Brunswick

The population of North Atlantic right whales is dangerously low, with researchers estimating a little more than 350 left in the world. Entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes are the largest causes of death.

First new entanglement reported in Canadian waters since 2019

Rescuers have tried to disentangle a right whale named Snow Cone, after she was found tangled in fishing gear near the northeastern coast of New Brunswick. (Submitted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

Rescuers are hoping to free two endangered North Atlantic right whales caught in fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The Campobello Whale Rescue team tried a second time last Thursday to disentangle Snow Cone, a 16-year old female first spotted entangled off the coast of Massachusetts during the winter. She was most recently spotted by survey planes near Miscou Island, on the northeastern tip of New Brunswick.

A second right whale was spotted in the area on Thursday, in what appears to be a fresh entanglement. This is the first new entanglement in Canadian waters since 2019, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The population of North Atlantic right whales is dangerously low, with researchers estimating a little more than 350 left in the world. Entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes are the largest causes of death.

Mackie Greene, director of the Campobello Whale Rescue Program, said seeing an entangled female is concerning for the health of the population.

"All kinds of males and only one female — you're not going to reproduce much for the species," he said. "That's why the females are so important to the survival of the right whales."

Right whale deaths have risen in recent years, with 34 deaths reported in U.S. and Canadian waters since 2017. Two right whale deaths have been recorded so far in 2021, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Continued rescue attempts

Snow Cone has been tracked by researchers since her birth in 2005. 

She has faced the impact that fishing nets and equipment is having on the species, with her calf killed by a ship strike last year while migrating north. 

Then in March, Snow Cone herself was spotted entangled near Cape Cod, Mass., where a U.S. rescue team was able to remove some of the rope.

Entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes are the largest causes of death for endangered North Atlantic right whales. (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission)

Department of Fisheries and Oceans survey planes found her two months later near the Acadian Peninsula. In an attempt on May 11, the Campobello Whale Rescue team was able to remove about nine metres of rope from the animal.

The crew made a second attempt on July 8.

Greene said the rope is tightly wound around her mouth and balene, making it challenging to remove. 

"There's still probably half a body length of rope coming out of her mouth on the left side," he said.

Snow Cone still appears to be feeding and relatively healthy, despite the entanglement in her mouth. The Campobello Whale Rescue Program is planning to return to the waters and search for her again next weekend.

First new entanglement in 2 years

The second entangled whale, a five-year-old male, was first observed on Tuesday. It is unnamed and identified by the number 4615.

A crew aboard a New England Aquarium research vessel, which was working in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, observed that the whale was "badly injured."

A satellite tag was attached to the fishing gear to allow researchers to track the whale and attempt a rescue if conditions allow.

Mackie said the tag appears to have sunk, a sign the whale likely succeeded in shedding some of the rope. Aerial photos show less gear attached to the animal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexandre Silberman is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. He can be reached at alexandre.silberman@cbc.ca

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