New Brunswick

Preliminary results from right whale necropsy 'inconclusive'

The nine-year-old male known as "Wolverine" was towed to Miscou Island after its body was discovered in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on June 4.

Initial assessment did not reveal evidence of vessel strikes or fishing gear entanglement, DFO says

Wolverine is the first North Atlantic right whale death reported in 2019. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says the death of a North Atlantic right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence does not appear to be the result of a recent vessel strike or entanglement in fishing gear.

A necropsy was conducted Friday on the shores of Miscou Island in New Brunswick, and the government said the initial assessment was inconclusive.

The nine-year-old male known as "Wolverine" was towed there after his carcass was discovered in the Gulf on Tuesday.

The whale was in an area previously closed to fishing activity as part of the 2019 management measures.

In recent years, most right whale deaths have been attributed to being struck by ships or becoming entangled in fishing gear.

"The necropsy of the right whale did not reveal evidence of acute [recent] fishing gear entanglement or recent vessel strike. Further testing to investigate other possible causes of death is pending," the department said in a statement issued late Saturday, attributing the information to veterinarians from the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

"The Department will continue to work with the fishing industry in Atlantic Canada and Quebec as well as our marine mammal response partners to support the protection and recovery of the endangered North Atlantic right whale," they wrote.

A picture from 2011 of Wolverine, a male, endangered right whale, that was found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on June 4. Wolverine was so named for a series of three propeller cuts on his tail stock that reminded researchers of the three blades on the hand of the Marvel comic book character of the same name. (Sheila McKenney/Associated Scientists of Woods Hole/Marineland Right Whale Project)

Scientists won't know the full results of the necropsy for months.

Tonya Wimmer, executive director of the Marine Animal Response Society, which assisted in the necropsy, said the process took a "large army" of people and lots of heavy equipment.

"The veterinary team along with everyone else on the site were exceptionally thorough in examining the animal," she said.

Wimmer said the team looked for bruising, broken bones, and hemorrhaging, which would be preliminary signs that cause of death was entanglement or a vessel strike, but found none.

She said investigations like these support a wide range of research projects.

Major efforts have been made to limit fishing gear when the whales are present, and there are now mandatory speed restrictions for vessels 20 metres or longer when travelling in the western Gulf.

No right whales died in Canadian waters last year, but 12 were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017.

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.

There are estimated to be 417 north Atlantic right whales left, with deaths outpacing live births.

With files from CBC