'Very tragic summer' leaves experts searching for way to save whales

Right whales have died this summer at a rate unseen since whalers hunted them down, a researcher said Thursday as she called for changes that would keep ships and whales from overlapping.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc is speaking today on the recent deaths of 10 North Atlantic right whales

A dead right whale was found on the west coast of Newfoundland. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Right whales have died this summer at a rate unseen since whalers hunted them down, a leading researcher said Thursday as she called for changes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that would keep ships and whales from overlapping.

"We haven't lost this many right whales in a short period of time since the days of whaling over 100 years ago," said Moira Brown, a senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute. 

"It's been a very tragic summer."

After another North Atlantic right whale washed ashore this week, Brown said it's urgent the federal government come up with a plan to halt the deaths.

Ten endangered whales have died since the beginning of June, including four that washed up on the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador in the past week.

Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear have been identified as the leading causes of the whale deaths.

The whale institute is hoping to work with Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to find a solution.

A plan of action

Three of the original eight right whales found floating between the Magdalen Islands and New Brunswick's Acadian Peninsula this summer had suffered blunt trauma, indicating they'd been struck by vessels.

Another right whale was entangled and found dead in snow crab gear in the gulf, where whales have been found in greater numbers this year.

Brown said the shipping industry can react quickly by designating an area to be avoided for shipping lanes because of the presence of whales.

The species cannot sustain another event with this level of mortality if recovery is going to move forward.-  Moira Brown, Canadian Whale Institute

If vessels can't relocate, another solution would be for ships to slow down when travelling through areas popular with right whales, she said.

"The solution we're trying to come up with is to not have vessels and whales overlap," she said.

The issue of whale entanglement is more challenging, she said.

At the end of July, the snow crab fisheries closed early in part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to try to keep whales from getting tangled up in fishing ropes.

The announcement came days after the death of Joe Howlett, a Campobello Island man, who had just freed a whale tangled in ropes.

Moira Brown of the Canadian Whale Institute has been studying right whales for 30 years. (CBC)

"We do not have an obvious solution at this point in time to reduce entanglement," she said.

Jerry Conway of the Canadian Whale Institute said there is an urgency to the situation because it's had "catastrophic ramifications on the right whale population."

The institute says it knows of only three calves born this year.

The federal Fisheries Department has also asked fishermen in the gulf to report any whale sightings and requested that mariners reduce their speed along the Laurentian channel.

In July, scientists conducted necropsies on two endangered North Atlantic right whales found dead near the Magdalen Islands. (Gilbert Boyer)

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc spoke about the right whales Thursday at a news conference in Moncton, shortly after flying over about 15 of the animals off Miscou Island.

He said a lot of scientists are working on ways to save the whales.

Brown said that in the fall and winter, the whale institute, Transport Canada and Fisheries can assess what can be done to prevent the deaths in the gulf. Fisherman are part of the solution and are willing to help, she said..

"Time is of the essence so that we can have some measures in place for when we anticipate when the whales will return to that area next spring," she said.

Death toll unsustainable 

Right now, about 500 right whales are left.

On average, a female right whale needs to reach the age of nine before she can have her first calf. Males are around the age of 15 before they father their first calf.

This summer alone, the right whale species has lost two per cent of its population.

Researchers from the Marine Animal Response Society examine a dead right whale in June. (Marine Animal Response Society)

"Just imagine if every time you went to the bank you had $500 in your bank account, you put $5 in and the bank took out $10 out, that's the kind of impact this is having," she said.

Brown, who has been studying right whales for almost 30 years, is calling the event unprecedented.

"The species cannot sustain another event with this level of mortality if recovery is going to move forward," she said.


Listen to Moira Brown talk to Information Morning Fredericton about finding a plan to halt the deaths of North Atlantic right whales: 

With files from Information Morning Fredericton, Canadian Press