The Current

What is killing Canada's right whales and what can be done to stop it?

The North Atlantic right whale are dying in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in unprecedented numbers. At least 10 of them have died this year — which is a massive blow to a population hovering around 500 in total worldwide.
A North Atlantic right was found dead in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in July, while another whale was entangled in fishing gear. (Joey-john Stewart/Facebook)

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"They're actually really magnificent animals."

So says Tonya Wimmer, director of the Marine Animal Response Society, about The North Atlantic right whale — a mammal she has spent significant time with recently.

Living along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the U.S., right whales are extremely heavy, very strong, and strikingly, bear no dorsal fin on their broad back.

"A very beautiful animal," Wimmer stresses.

But to the frustration of Wimmer and animal rights activists, this year the North Atlantic right whales are dying in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in unprecedented numbers.

At least 10 of the endangered species have died — a massive blow to a population hovering around 500 in total worldwide.

In order to assess what is causing these spikes in deaths, Wimmer and other biologists have had to get their hands dirty and perform necropsies on the surrounding beaches.

Necropsy on eighth dead right whale of the season on Miscou Island


4 years ago
Necropsy done in northeastern New Brunswick to determine how whale died 0:34

The team was able to perform six necropsies, five of which Wimmer attended.

"These are very large animals and so it takes a lot to be able to do this," she tells The Current

"It's very different than when we pick up a dolphin or a small whale and bring it into a laboratory setting. The procedure itself is very much identical — just you're dealing with an animal that's 50 feet instead of less than 10."

Because of the procedures, pathologists were able to determine three of the whales were victims of blunt trauma — likely struck by boats — while another whale suffered from ropes wrapped around its body.

"Being struck by vessels or entangled in fishing gear are the main two causes of death for this entire species, " says Wimmer.

"[But] this year it was something quite unusual."

Wimmer says this year was particularly bad for the right whales in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence because a change in migration patterns had more whales arriving earlier in the season, and an increase in the quota for snow crabs likely brought more people and gear to the water. 

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)

"It just seemed to be this very bad coincidence ... things that happened all at the same time."

Wimmer says the necropsies that served these observations could not have been performed without substantial help from committed volunteers and crews.

"We're not able to do it without having a vast number of people."

The spirit of a community action seems essential in protecting what's left of the right whale population.

By example, Wimmer criticizes a ban on rescuing whales caught in nets that was put in place after a lobster fisherman and whale rescuer, Joe Howlett, died trying to rescue an entangled whale.

Tonya Wimmer is a marine biologist and director of the Marine Animal Response Society. (CBC)

"Joe is part of one of the world's best teams that exist on the planet doing this and they're highly trained … Until we deal with migration and reducing these threats, unfortunately, we do need to have these people who are at the ready to help us save these whales."

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc held a press conference last week about the right whale deaths, stating the government would "bring all of the resources necessary to bear" to guarantee "every possible measure is in place to ensure both the protection of these endangered species [and] the recovery of these species."

LeBlanc's strategy includes pulling up the snow crab fishery and asking for voluntary boat slowdowns.

But conservationists say if the government wants to protect the whales, they have to commit — and fast.

"We would like to see cabinet invoke the emergency measures ... under the Species at Risk Act and create a mandatory slowdown to 10 knots for all ships coming through the area until the whales begin their migration back down south," says Barbara Cartwright, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. 

"The shipping companies need to show leadership in making this happen," Cartwright argues.

"If we're only willing to protect species when it's easy and simple for us, then really our commitment to species protection is fairly meaningless."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Karin Marley.