Dead female North Atlantic right whale found in Gulf of St. Lawrence

A scientist says the death of a female North Atlantic right whale found drifting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Wednesday is a major concern because healthy females are needed to restore the endangered population.

Whale found drifting northeast of Magdalen Islands on Wednesday is 2nd death this month

A second dead North Atlantic right whale, this time a female, has been spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

In a series called Deep Trouble, CBC News explores the perils facing the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

A scientist says the death of a female North Atlantic right whale found drifting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Wednesday is a major concern because healthy females are needed to restore the endangered population.

The New England Aquarium in Boston said the whale known as Punctuation was found dead on Wednesday northeast of the Magdalen Islands. She was nicknamed because the small scars on her head looked like dashes and commas.

The whale was initially spotted during a Transport Canada surveillance flight, said a news release from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

It's not clear what caused the whale's death.

"It's tragic, because [the females] have babies, and babies after them," said Tonya Wimmer, executive director of the Marine Animal Response Society.

Satellite tag

Fishery officers were able to attach a satellite tag to the carcass, but Wimmer said stormy conditions expected over the next few days will complicate getting the whale to shore for a necropsy to establish the cause of death.

"Luckily, they were able to tag the animal, so the hope is that once the weather settles down, it will be findable again," she said.

Punctuation had eight calves, her first in 1986 and her last in 2016. Two of her calves went on to have calves of their own, according to the New England Aquarium.

2nd right whale death this month

The carcass of a right whale known as Wolverine was discovered earlier this month in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and towed to Miscou Island in New Brunswick where a necropsy was conducted.

The initial assessment was inconclusive, Fisheries and Oceans Canada said. However, officials said the death did not appear to be the result of a vessel strike or entanglement in fishing gear.

No right whales died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2018, but 12 were found dead the prior year.

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.

As of June 7, there were an estimated 417 North Atlantic right whales left worldwide, with deaths outpacing live births, according to a Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist.

Earlier in June, Wolverine, the nine-year-old North Atlantic right whale shown in this photo, was discovered dead in the gulf. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

A study on the endangered North Atlantic right whale population was published this week. It found that more than half of the 70 known deaths over the last 16 years were caused by entanglement in fishing gear or vessel collisions.

The study makes a number of recommendations, including efforts to update fishing gear to reduce the chance of entanglement and further restrictions on vessel speed and activity when whales are present.

DFO working to address threats to right whales

In response to the study, Fisheries and Oceans Canada said it is committed to protecting North Atlantic right whales.

In a statement, spokesperson Barre Campbell said the department has been working closely with partners in both Canada and the United States to address threats facing whales.

"With confirmed right whale sightings in Canadian waters this season, DFO has already implemented a number of closures for snow crab and lobster fisheries (and all other non-tended fixed gear fisheries) since April 28, 2019, in Atlantic Canada," Campbell wrote.

"Further, DFO has implemented specific, robust fisheries management measures and mandatory speed restrictions to reduce the risk of fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes for right whales."

With files from The Canadian Press


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