New Brunswick

North Atlantic right whale found dead on Florida beach

Officials in the United States are investigating after a North Atlantic right whale calf was found dead on a Florida beach Sunday. The calf's mother, Infinity, was observed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence every summer for the past four years.

'Any loss is devastating to us as part of the community making efforts to protect these right whales'

The calf had injuries matching those typically sustained by a strike from a vessel, including propeller wounds. (Submitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute)

Officials in the United States are investigating after a North Atlantic right whale was found dead on a Florida beach Sunday.

The calf, estimated to be about a month old, was found in Anastasia State Park, near St. Augustine, according to a Facebook post from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

The post said the night before the carcass was found, the captain of a 16-metre sport fishing vessel reported hitting a whale near the entrance to St. Augustine Inlet. The vessel began taking on water and was quickly grounded to prevent it from sinking.

Fresh cuts on the whale's back and head suggest it was struck by a vessel's propeller, the institute said. The whale also had broken ribs and bruising, which are consistent with impact trauma. Final results of a necropsy are yet to come.

The institute said the calf and its mother, Infinity, had been seen in the calving grounds since mid-January.

The calf is pictured with its mother, Infinity, in a photo taken in January. (Submitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute)

On Tuesday, the mother was seen for the first time since the calf's death, and also had injuries consistent with a vessel strike on her left side, including a series of fresh propeller cuts, the institute said.

North Atlantic right whales migrate annually to waters such as the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of St. Lawrence to feed and mate before migrating to areas off the shores of Florida and Georgia to give birth to their young in the winter months, said Amy Warren, a right whale researcher with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Infinity was observed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence every summer for the past four years, Warren said.

"She's definitely a regular visitor to Canadian waters," Warren said.

In the last three years, however, the endangered species has been plagued by deaths caused by vessel strikes and fishing net entanglements.

Since 2017, 33 whales — including the most recent one — have been found dead in U.S. and Canadian waters, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA).

A necropsy is underway to determine the cause of death. (Submitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute)

Another 14 live whales have been found with serious injuries, NOAA said.

"The population is estimated to be right around 350 individuals right now, so any loss is devastating to us as part of the community making efforts to protect these right whales," Warren said.

She said leading up to the decline in North Atlantic right whales, 23 were birthed annually.

So far this breeding year, 15 mother-calf pairs have been recorded, including the latest to have died, she said.

Another right whale calf was found dead last November. However, it was found to have died from natural causes, according to NOAA.

Investigation underway

In its Facebook post, the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute said mother-calf pairs spend most of their time at, or just below, the water's surface.

"Vessel operators are urged to slow down (10 knots or less), remain alert while traveling through nearshore waters in Florida and near inlets, and to give these animals space when sighted," the institute said.

NOAA spokesperson Allison Garrett said in an email that she couldn't comment on how fast the boat was going, or whether its operator was breaking any laws at the time, as such information is part of an open law enforcement investigation.

Warren said the messaging to boaters is to always keep a sharp eye on the water. However, her centre wants to see stricter rules for vessels to better protect right whales.

She said only boats longer than 20 metres are required to limit their speed to 10 knots in certain parts of U.S. waters at specific times of the year to protect right whales.

"We believe that the vessel that struck this calf was under 65 feet (20 metres), so there was no speed restriction. And we do think that speed could play a role," she said.

Warren said there should also be speed limits for boats measuring under 20 metres.

Last year, the Government of Canada implemented a mandatory 10 knot speed-limit restriction throughout much of the Gulf of St. Lawrence for vessels longer than 13 metres, in an effort to protect right whales.

Additional measures taken by Transport Canada in 2020 included two speed-restricted seasonal management areas, a trial voluntary speed limit of 10 knots in the Cabot Strait, and a restricted area in the Shediac Valley between eastern New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Vessels were asked to avoid that area or slow their speed to eight knots.

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