DFO investigating dead right whale in western Newfoundland

It remains to be seen if a dead right whale that washed ashore in western Newfoundland is a new death or not.

Eight dead right whales found in Eastern Canada in recent months, with no clear pattern of cause of death

The carcass of a dead right whale, like this one in the Gulf of St. Lawrence last week, has been discovered in a remote part of western Newfoundland. (Joey-john Stewart/Facebook)

A dead right whale that washed ashore in western Newfoundland is concerning for ocean scientists, but it still remains to be seen if it's a new death or one that was previously recorded.

The carcass was found in an area called Church Point, a few kilometres southwest of Trout River, the same area where several dead blue whales washed ashore in the spring of 2014.

In recent months, eight right whales have been found dead in Eastern Canada, which is troubling given that there are only 468 left in the world, according to Dr. Jack Lawson of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Nova Scotia researchers peg the population a little higher, at just more than 500 whales.

According to a researcher with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, there are fewer than 500 right whales left in the world's oceans. Nova Scotia researchers put the number at just more than 500. (Canadian Whale Institute/Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life)

However, it's still not clear if the decomposed carcass that washed up in Church Point this week makes a ninth death or if is is one of the eight that was recorded elsewhere and just floated to the western Newfoundland coast.

That's why scientists were in the area this week, taking photos, measurements and tissue samples to see if they can match it to one of the seven, or to a previously tagged living right whale.

"Hopefully we can get a genetic sample, and it may match an existing catalogue maintained of right whales over the years," Lawson told CBC Radio's The Broadcast.

Cause of death

How the 14-metre whale died remains a bit of a mystery, given the state of decomposition and the fact that the area is too hard for a veterinarian to get to perform a necropsy. 

"It's more or less just a big bag of skin with a few bones in it so there wouldn't be much value in trying to expend a lot of resources to go into this location," Lawson said.

Lawson said of the dead whales they've recently observed, at least two died from blunt force trauma and one may have died from carrying gear like a rope or net. He said it's hard to mount a response to the whale deaths because there doesn't seem to be a consistent thing that's killing them.

He said it can be tricky determining what killed the whales as sometimes they may have injuries on their bodies that were inflicted after they died, so that's why it's so important for someone to examine them.

"The question then becomes if you get an animal with broken ribs, was that animal hit by a ship before it died or after it died?" he said.

With files from Jane Adey