PEI·Deep Trouble

What's killing right whales? P.E.I. wildlife pathologists spend summer searching for answers

Solving the mystery of what's killing North Atlantic right whales is the goal of a team of scientists and volunteers from the Atlantic Veterinary College, work that also involves pathologists from the University of Montreal. Solving the "unprecedented" deaths in the Gulf of St. Lawrence sometimes amounts to a race against time.

'It certainly does increase the pressure, mostly because these are extremely endangered animals'

Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust collects samples from a dead right whale floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Marine Animal Response Society/Canadian Press)

A team of scientists and volunteers from the Atlantic Veterinary College raced against time as they dove into action in late June, knives in hand.

They needed to work as quickly as possible on the necropsies of dead North Atlantic right whales before the giant endangered animals decomposed further. At one point, they performed three necropsies in three days.

Among these scientists was Dr. Laura Bourque, wildlife pathologist and 2013 graduate of the AVC. She had just been hired at the college when the call came in about the right whales.

"It's daunting, to be honest. I hadn't done anything as large as a right whale before here," she said.

Dr. Laura Bourque had never done a necropsy on anything as large as a right whale before this summer. (Submitted by Atlantic Veterinary College)

"I'd done dolphins, and belugas and things like that, they're big, but they're manageable because you can do them in the lab.… This is an entirely different situation because this animal — they're huge — and you have to do them out in the open."

Time was of the essence, as more dead right whales turned up throughout the summer. At least 14 have been found dead off the east coast of Canada and the U.S. this year.

We got a whale done a day. That's pretty good.- Laura Bourque

The first challenge was getting to the whale carcasses, which were floating around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Initially, they tried to assess the whales at sea.

"We thought we might be able to do some kind of superficial post-mortem while they were floating in the ocean, and we did try that," said Bourque.

Researchers from the Marine Animal Response Society examine one of the dead right whales. (Marine Animal Response Society)

"There's a fairly famous picture of Pierre riding a whale in the middle of the Atlantic, but we were only able to do very superficial work."

Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust is a well-known wildlife pathologist in P.E.I., one of the leads for the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

He was instantly on board when Fisheries and Oceans made the decision to tow three of the six carcasses to P.E.I.'s far western tip, in a location called Norway.

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After an unprecedented number of deaths this summer, CBC News is bringing you an in-depth look at the endangered North Atlantic right whale. This week, in a series called Deep Trouble, CBC explores the perils facing the right whales.

"We were well-positioned to respond very quickly, because of the size of the animal, it is a very big challenge," said Daoust.

But first, he needed a team of volunteers to get the work done quickly. 

"Fortunately, because we are at a veterinary college, the vast majority of our students have the knowledge of how to handle a knife," said Daoust.

Fisheries and Oceans called in experts from across Canada and the U.S. to help, including the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, the Marine Animal Response Society, University of North Carolina Wilmington, University of Montreal, Marine Mammal Commission and the government of British Columbia, along with the AVC. (Marine Animal Response Society)

"So they are ideal volunteers to help us in this task."

Daoust, Bourque and the others worked 10 to 12 hours a day to get it done.

In each of the three days at Norway, they were able to do one complete necropsy, from head to tail.

"You have to have heavy equipment to help you move the tissues and things around, it is daunting," Bourque said. 

One of the right whales is towed to shore for a necropsy at Norway, P.E.I. (Marine Animal Response Society)

"On a rocky beach, which is not always easy to manoeuvre.… We got a whale done a day," she said. "That's pretty good."

Bourque said the whales decompose quickly and were pretty far gone by the time they were towed to shore.

"If we want to get a good report, and really figure out what's going on with these, we need to get the tissue as fresh as we can, because that will affect all of the different diagnostic processes," she said.

Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust, of Charlottetown's Atlantic Veterinary College, standing in green pants, works on the necropsy of the right whale brought ashore. (Nicolas Steinbach/Radio-Canada)

Some of the whales were very "flat," as the scientists call them.

"A right whale has a very thick layer of blubber and as it decomposes, it gets a little bit bloated, so those are very round whales," Bourque explained. 

"But a lot of them were flat, they've gone past that and have lost all of their internal organs, and there's not much to work with."

Since the necropsies, Daoust and Bourque have been putting in long hours in the lab, analyzing their findings and working on a final report.

But even as recently as Tuesday, they were back in the field performing another necropsy on Miscou Island, N.B., on yet another right whale with what appeared to be fishing gear entangled around its carcass.

The necropsy of each of the whales, from head to tail, took between 10 and 12 hours. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

There are some working theories, after preliminary necropsy results revealed some of the dead whales suffered blunt trauma and showed signs of chronic entanglement, likely from fishing gear. 

But Bourque said experts still can't say definitively what killed any of the whales.

"We know entanglement is an issue right now, and we're wondering about boat strikes. But it's going to be a while before we can say anything definitive," she said. 

"In our report we can say 'yes or no there was evidence of trauma.' But then we need to pair that with, were there even ships in the area at that time?"

'It's a terrible situation'

Bourque said she and Daoust, along with pathologists from the University of Montreal, who led two of the necropsies in Quebec, are still waiting on the results from diagnostic testing of tissue samples from the whales.

The necropsies required not just a large crew, but also heavy equipment. (Marine Animal Response Society)

For the two wildlife pathologists, the desire to help protect the right whale is driving them in their quest for answers.

Daoust calls the deaths "unprecedented." 

"It's a terrible situation for that population when every single animal that dies is critical to the population," he said.

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For Bourque, at the start of her career, the summer has been a learning experience, but also one with high stakes.

"It certainly does increase the pressure mostly because these are extremely endangered animals and I know myself and Pierre and everyone else that I've worked with, we're so worried about the state of their population," said Bourque.

"I hope we get to the bottom of this, we are doing our absolute best to do that."


Nancy Russell has worked as a reporter and producer with CBC, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Prince Edward Island. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.

With files from Steve Bruce