Update on the North Atlantic right whale mortalities

The Gulf of St. Lawrence is a busy place. It is crossed by multiple lines of heavy international shipping traffic, and now is increasingly becoming the summer home for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale (NARW). Historically, NARWs spent their summers in and around the Bay of Fundy. However, since 2014, they have been appearing in the Gulf in increasing numbers. The summer of 2017 marked a heavy loss to the NARW population (at the time, estimated at approximately 440 individuals) with 12 deaths reported in the Gulf due to a combination of fishing gear entanglement and vessel strikes.

Photo courtesy of Marine Animal Response Society (MARS).

Now, we regret to report that six more NARW deaths have occurred in the Gulf in the month of June, 2019. The NARW bodies were identified floating dead in various locations in the southern Gulf, ranging from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River estuary to east of the Magdalene Islands. Four of these carcasses were towed to shore for necropsies, which were performed by teams from both CWHC Atlantic and CWHC Quebec, with significant coordination and support from partners from the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Réseau québécois d’urgences pour les mammifères marins, and Parks Canada. Preliminary findings for three of four whales examined revealed evidence of trauma compatible with vessel strike. Two of the six carcasses were unavailable for examination due either to advanced post mortem decomposition or being in a location difficult to access (Anticosti Island). As well, three NARW have been recently spotted live entangled in the Gulf, two of which have been partially freed at this time.

In light of the preliminary findings on the post-mortem exams, mitigation measures have been initiated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in the Gulf, including fisheries closures and vessel speed restriction zones.


Submitted by:

Drs. Laura Bourque and Megan Jones (CWHC-Atlantic)

Dr. Stéphane Lair (CWHC-Quebec)

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