Fatal attraction: Why are so many right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence?

Research vessels, planes and teams of experts are working on why so many North Atlantic right whales are in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence this year.

8 whales have been found dead in the Gulf this year

The preliminary results of necropsies have found ship strikes and gear entanglement could have led to the deaths of the whales. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

Research vessels, planes and teams of experts are working on why so many North Atlantic right whales are in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence this year.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist Matthew Hardy said there are an unprecedented number of these endangered animals in the Gulf. There are only about 525 of the whales left and eight of them have died, with preliminary research on six showing ship strikes and gear entanglement as possible causes.

This whale was entangled in fishing gear, but a team was able to cut it free. (Canadian Whale Institute/Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life)

Work done this summer will help guide decisions on what protection measures to put in place next year.

Hardy said that includes possibly ending fishing activity in some areas or even creating a marine protected area.

"That's always a possibility and it's something we will look into," adding that designating an area would have complications.

"These are not stationary animals that will just stay in one place. These are large animals that move around and cover vast areas. But certainly we have a lot of research to be done just to understand what is drawing whales into this area, what they're doing while they're here and how they interact with humans."

Economic considerations

Closing or limiting the fishery could have major economic impact.

"Depending on the size of the closure, of course, it could be a really major disruption to the economy," said Hardy.

There are only about 525 North Atlantic right whales left. (Canadian Whale Institute/Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life)

"The snow crab industry by itself is one of our largest fisheries and the exports are in the millions and millions."

Ending shipping in the northern area of the Gulf isn't an option because it's the entranceway to Quebec — a huge shipping lane for North America. He says setting shipping lanes and slowing down vessel traffic are some options. 

Climate change is one possible reason for more whales occupying Gulf waters, said Hardy. He said one theory is they're chasing krill and other food, but there could be other factors too.

With files from Laura Chapin