Nova Scotia

Dead right whale off N.Y. was last seen entangled in Canadian waters

A North Atlantic right whale found dead earlier this month off the coast of New York state was last seen entangled in fishing gear in Atlantic Canadian waters.

The rash of right whale deaths has increased pressure on Canada to do more to protect the species

The North Atlantic right whale found dead off Long Island, N.Y., earlier this month has been identified as Snake Eyes, a 40-year-old male, last seen entangled in fishing gear in Canadian waters. (New York Department of Environmental Conservation)

Twelve days after the North Atlantic right whale called Snake Eyes was found dead off Long Island, N.Y., the cause of death remains a mystery.

But the 40-year-old male was seen alive entangled in Canadian fishing gear in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

On Aug. 6, the whale was spotted 90 kilometres north of the Magdalen Islands. Previously, it was seen there — unentangled — on July 16.

The animal's badly decomposed carcass was found Sept. 16 off Fire Island inlet.

The whale was identified as Snake Eyes because the pattern of a rope line embedded in his head exactly matched the last video of him. 

Whether entanglement killed Snake Eyes is not known. There was no rope on the carcass at the time it was found.

The necropsy report has not been completed.

Entanglement 'likely' caused death

Phillip Hamilton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, is investigating the whale's death.

"It seems likely that the entanglement played a role," he said. "But I would not assume that. It's possible that he escaped and was doing OK and got hit by a ship."

Hamilton helped identify Snake Eyes.

The first reported death of a North Atlantic right whale in 2019 was Wolverine, a nine-year-old male. Eight right whales have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

"I've been doing this work for over 30 years and I've seen Snake Eyes in almost all of the habitats. The loss of any whale is difficult but one that I know so well was particularly challenging."

It is estimated there are only about 400 of the critically endangered species still alive.

In 2019, eight right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, despite protective measures such as fishery closures and shipping lane speed reductions.

Concern over other Canadian entanglements

Four right whales, including Snake Eyes, were also seen entangled in the Gulf in 2019.

One ended up completely disentangled, with substantial scars, and seemed OK otherwise.

Hamilton is worried about the fate of two others. One animal was only partially freed of rope and was last seen looking "quite poor."

The other had a satellite tag. After attempts to free it in the Gulf and off Nova Scotia, it was partially freed east of Cape Cod.

"It was a very serious entanglement with many wraps around the body and through the mouth," Hamilton said. "So his chances are much better due to intervention but we don't know whether that whale will survive."

More pressure on Canada

The rash of right whale deaths in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has increased pressure on Canada to do more to protect the whales.

Last week, nine American environmental groups asked the United States to ban Canadian snow crab imports when a new U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act comes into force in 2022.

The act will ban seafood imports from countries without fishing restrictions comparable to marine mammal protections in place for United States fisheries.

Hamilton said both countries can do better.

"I'm not the one to tell the Canadian government what to do. But I think it's important not to think our efforts are being 100 per cent successful."

He said people who care about the whales' fate can write their politicians and check where their seafood comes from to ensure that it is sustainably caught.

Vagabond whale sighted off Newfoundland this month

While scientists investigate the death of Snake Eyes, the behaviour of a male vagabond right whale named Mogul continues to puzzle.

Earlier this week, the 11-year-old right whale was spotted off Newfoundland. Last year, it was seen off Iceland and this summer, off Normandy, France, far outside the animals' normal range.

Right whales were common in the area before they were wiped out by Basque fishermen.

"It's intriguing because many of the places that he's going to are places where right whales historically were seen somewhat frequently," Hamilton said.

"So as the population struggles in its current habitats, it seems that this whale is exploring some of the older habitat."

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