New Brunswick

16th North Atlantic right whale found dead off Cape Cod

A 16th North Atlantic right whale has been found dead off the coast of Massachusetts, the International Fund for Animal Welfare says.

International Fund for Animal Welfare to help investigate cause of latest whale death this year

Another North Atlantic right whale has been found dead near Cape Cod, Mass., the 16th this year. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

A 16th North Atlantic right whale has been found dead off the coast of Massachusetts, the International Fund for Animal Welfare says.

The organization announced late Monday that the right whale was found dead on Nashawena Island, south of Cape Cod.

There are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and the 16 whale deaths just this year have alarmed those trying to protect the endangered mammals.

Brian Sharp, the wildlife charity's program manager for marine mammals rescue and research, said the team rushed to the location late Monday to try to examine the animal's body.

"They found a small whale, only just over eight and a half metres in length." 

Sharp said the team returned to the island Tuesday morning to continue examining the whale.

"Unfortunately, the animal is very decomposed so that's hampering the investigation in their examination," Sharp said. "They documented everything they did and collected samples and now we're in the process of sending our samples off to be analyzed."

Sharp said the group will try to learn as much as it can about the dead right whale, including its sex. Because of the remoteness of the island, heavy equipment can't be taken to the site. 

"They were really limited to what they could do by hand which meant they could not roll the animal." 

The group said it would also work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine the cause of death. 

"With this 16th confirmed mortality, the North Atlantic right whale population has experienced an alarming number of deaths in 2017," read a statement from the fund said in a statement

"Time is of the essence and we must work together to determine how to best protect this critically endangered species."

Over the weekend, whale researchers met in Halifax to discuss the critically endangered marine mammals being found dead this year in waters off eastern Canada and the United States.

Sharp said to learn of the whale's death after a day spent discussing how dire the year has been for the species was shocking.

Number could be higher

"The population biologists that we work with show us that losing even one right whale in a year can be damaging to the survival of the population. You can imagine where we're all at with having this, the 16th confirmed mortality.

"Likely it's even higher than that. Those are just the ones someone spotted and reported and we were able to examine." 

Scientists, fishermen, large-vessel operators and Indigenous groups will also be meeting next month in Moncton in an effort to reduce the number of right whale deaths.

That meeting will be hosted by federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc.

Many of this year's whale deaths have been caused by collisions with vessels. Other right whales have become entangled in fishing gear.

Reducing the risk

The animals appear off the East Coast in the spring and summer to feed.

They are called right whales because they were considered by whalers to be the "right" whales to hunt — they floated when killed and produced high amounts of whale oil. As a result, their population was decimated in the whaling era.

The Canadian government has taken steps to reduce the risk to right whales by bringing in measures that include reducing the speed limit in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and shutting down a snow crab fishery early.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration review of right whales says they are experiencing low reproduction, declining abundance and changes in the availability of food.

Collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear have been blamed for much of the distress and deaths the small right whale population has suffered. (Captain Dave Peros/USCG)

The five-year review included recommendations to protect the species, such as developing a long-term plan for monitoring the population trends and habitat use, and studying the impact of commercial fishing on right whales.

Other recommendations include prioritizing funding of acoustic, aerial and ship surveys of right whales and evaluating whether it might be necessary to modify existing protections such as ship speed rules.

"This most recent decline and the large number of deaths in 2017 are a serious concern, and reminds us that we still have a long way to go to bring this population back to the point at which it is considered recovered," the U.S. agency said in a statement last week.

-With files from The Canadian Press