New Brunswick

Snow crab fishery closed after 8th right whale found dead in Gulf of St. Lawrence

After the death of an eighth right whale on Thursday, Fisheries and Oceans has closed the snow crab fishery in part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to try to keep whales from getting tangled up in fishing ropes.

Scientists look for cause of latest in 'unprecedented' number of whale deaths in gulf this summer

Eight endangered right whales have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since June. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

After the death of an eighth right whale on Thursday, Fisheries and Oceans has closed the snow crab fishery in part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to try to keep whales from getting tangled up in fishing ropes.

A necropsy for the eighth whale to be found dead in the gulf since June was scheduled for Miscou Island on Friday morning, and how it died is not known.

Another whale has been spotted entangled in fishing gear in the gulf, but the federal department has backed away from rescue attempts.

Deaths 'unprecedented'

But the closure of the snow crab fishery in Area 12 off northern New Brunswick was a response to the latest whale death, Fisheries and Oceans said.

The harvest was already 98 per cent complete, the department said, adding the early closure would still have an impact on fishermen.

"The recent whale mortalities in the area are unprecedented and this closure is an important measure to address the situation," the department said in a news release.

Tonya Wimmer, director of the Marine Animal Response Society, said the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was using a boat to bring the dead whale close to shore Thursday night, but the necropsy will not take place until early Friday, when the whale will be moved to a beach on Miscou.

Pierre-Yves Daoust is a wildlife pathologist and veterinarian at UPEI's Atlantic Veterinary College. (UPEI)

She said the rescue group, along with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and colleagues with the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, will perform the necropsy to determine what killed the whale.

Pierre-Yves Daoust, a wildlife pathologist at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island, said the whale was spotted by plane on Wednesday by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

The agency has been studying right whales along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and surveying whales in the gulf.

"That administration has been very useful in our own attempt at figuring out what the problem is right now this summer in the gulf," said Daoust, who is also a member of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative. 

"Considering the warm weather and the fact that … any day that passes can cause a lot of decomposition inside the carcass," he said. "That really makes it that much more difficult for us."

Necropsy Friday

The necropsy will determine what happened to the latest whale found dead, and Daoust said he isn't ruling anything out.

Collisions with ships are suspected in some of the earlier deaths.

Wimmer said previous necropsies revealed some whales suffered blunt trauma and bore signs of chronic entanglement. 

Human safety is paramount, whether you're dealing with a live animal or a dead one.- Tonya Wimmer

"Whether there's also still something underlying in terms of the animal's health, that's still to be determined," she said.

These accidents can happen any time there is human activity in a place where marine animals are also found.

Scientists, industry and government are trying to find a way the two can co-exist, Winner said.

"What we're seeing here is obviously an imbalance of that, where the animals are in these places and the human activities are there."

Since the death of whale rescuer Joe Howlett last week, Fisheries and Oceans has not automatically responded to whales tangled up in gear.

Howlett, who co-founded the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, was performing a rescue in the Gulf of St. Lawrence from a Department of Fisheries vessel based in Shippagan when he died.

Joe Howlett, right, pictured with his son, Tyler Howlett, died last Monday after rescuing a right whale from snow crab gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Tyler Howlett/Facebook)

"Everyone is taking a pause and looking at what happened … obviously, human safety is paramount whether you're dealing with a live animal or a dead one," Wimmer said.

She said she's been told the Fisheries Department will monitor the entangled whale, aiming to get better photos and video of how the animal is bound up in the ropes.

Follow entangled whale

As of Thursday evening, no update was available on the entangled whale.

Experts are waiting on the sidelines to see what can be done, and Wimmer hopes the whale will be able to shed the gear on its own. 

Jerry Conway, an adviser with the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, said Fisheries and Oceans is also trying to put a satellite tracking tag on the trailing gear so it can follow the entangled whale. 

The number of deaths haven't been seen like this since the days of whaling.- Jerry Conway

With the tracking, Conway said he hopes a team will be put together, and rescue permits reissued, so the whale can be freed from the ropes.

Preliminary discussions are underway but Fisheries and Oceans isn't committed to freeing the whale, he said. 

Conway said he was concerned and disappointed when he heard an eighth whale had died and another one was caught in gear.

He called for a complete review of fishing gear and shipping lanes and how they relate to areas in the gulf where right whales have been turning up in unexpected numbers. 

"This is an unprecedented event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year," Conway said. "The number of deaths haven't been seen like this since the days of whaling." 

Just over 500 North Atlantic right whales remain. 

With files from Maritime Noon