Pathologist feels 'echoes of 2017' in right whale necropsies over Canada Day weekend

Doing her third necropsy of a right whale this month is heartbreaking, said veterinarian Megan Jones, but she takes some comfort knowing the work she is doing is important.

3rd necropsy began Friday morning

Dr. Megan Jones, left, and Dr. Laura Bourque, wildlife pathologists, take an early look at the right whale. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Doing her third necropsy of a right whale this month is heartbreaking, said veterinarian Megan Jones, but she takes some comfort knowing the work she is doing is important.

Jones was working at a zoo in San Diego when there was last a high death toll of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but she is feeling the weight of that history with six whales found dead in the gulf this month.

"In 2017 they did … three necropsies over Canada Day weekend, so that's the same timing as this year, so it seems like it's echoes of 2017," said Jones.

"It's definitely very concerning."

In 2017, 12 right whales were found dead in the gulf, but none last year.

Team members measure the right whale's fin. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Jones became regional director of the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-operative and a professor at the Atlantic Veterinary College in 2018, putting her at the centre of determining the cause of death of these whales. She performed her third necropsy on Friday in Norway, P.E.I. on a male whale found near the Acadian peninsula on Tuesday.

It is estimated there are 411 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, with just 100 or so females of breeding age. Jones said this level of mortality is not sustainable for the species, but she still has hope.

"We try to remain optimistic, otherwise we wouldn't be able to keep doing what we're doing," she said.

"This work is really important to me. I and my colleagues became wildlife pathologists because we're really concerned about wildlife conservation."

A Mi'kmaq elder offered prayer after the whale, now named Comet, was ashore, and then the work began.

Measurements of the whale's overall dimensions were done, as well as preparation of field labs, for tissue sampling.

'Huge consequences'

In the first two necropsies, one whale was found to have injuries consistent with a ship collision. The other was inconclusive, and further tests are being done. Getting those results could take months.

Team members look on as a backhoe pulls the whale ashore. An earlier attempt resulted in a broken rope. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

"We know our results have huge consequences so we don't like to speculate. We use evidence to make our determination," said Jones.

Transport Canada has already ordered a reduction in speeds for vessels in a large section of the gulf, which has a serious impact on shipping.

This necropsy is part of a team effort across many disciplines to figure out how to help the whales, says Megan Jones. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

The time and location of its death are not known.

A team effort

Jones said the coast guard has been quick to get the whales to shore for necropsies this year, which makes determining the cause of death easier.

The team looked on as crews tried to get the right whale ashore. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

She said that job is part of a team effort with many different kinds of specialists working together to figure out how to protect the whales.

"We have our colleagues who understand the biology, folks who are oceanographers and who track where the whales are, and our colleagues in the United States who know all the whales are also tracking them," she said.

There are about two dozen people on the team to perform the necropsy. Whale necropsies are messy and, given the size of the animals, hard physical work. Added to that, said Jones, is the emotional toll of working with an endangered species.

A coast guard ship brought the whale in as close as it could, and it was hauled onto the beach by heavy equipment from there. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

"My colleagues went through this in 2017, and this is my first time experiencing this scale of mortality of such a large and endangered whale species, so it's personally quite difficult," she said.

"On the other hand, at least we know that our work is really important and we're hopefully going to be able to contribute to making things better. There's a lot of people who care a lot."

Investigators said they are not jumping to conclusions — they'll look at all the information gathered and try to piece together what caused the Comet's death.

When the necropsy is finished the whale will be buried among the dunes, investigators said.

More P.E.I. news

With files from Island Morning and Brian Higgins


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