Q&A with North Atlantic right whale expert

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2017 has become the deadliest year for the north Atlantic right whales. Since June 7th, there have been at least 10 whale carcasses found floating lifelessly off the coast of Canada. There are only around 525 right whales left in the wild. Researchers are scrambling to figure out why one of the world's most endangered whale species is dying in "unprecedented numbers.”

We spoke to Tonya Winners, Director of the Marine Animal Response Society, who is part of the on- going investigation of all the incidents in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year. Winners is a marine mammal biologist and has worked on the study, recovery and protection of this and other marine animals for almost 20 years in Canada.

Q: How many whales have officially been found dead off Newfoundland’s west coast?

A: There have been four carcasses found on the shores of Newfoundland. At this time we don’t know if any of these 4 animals are either of the 2 that went missing from the original 8, which were observed floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The total is now a range at least 10 individuals but possibly 12.
 

This map shows all the incidents this summer, including the live entangled animals found. Photo provided by: Marine Animal Response Society

 
Q: What’s the biggest threat to these whales?

A: The biggest threats to North Atlantic right whales are vessel collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.

Q: What happens to the whales when they’re entangled in gear?

A: Fishing gear can be entangled around different parts of whales (or multiple parts). Rope or gear can be caught on their tails (flukes), around flippers, over their bodies and head or through their mouths. The impact from this depends on the severity of the entanglement. Sometimes we see a simple wrap (ie. one loose loop) and sometimes it weaves around several body parts. Depending on how the entanglement is configured, it can result in an entanglement which isn't very severe (ie. it doesn't seem to be constricting and causing much harm) to those that are tightly wrapped and constricting body parts or destroying their baleen and thus, hindering their ability to feed. Some of the injuries can be extremely severe and cause massive infections. This can result in animals succumbing to their injuries, infections or starving to death. It is an absolutely horrific way to die.

Q: It’s been said that the Gulf St. Lawrence is a dangerous place for the whales to be, why do you think they have shifted here from their usual ‘stomping grounds’ in the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin?

A: According to the researchers at the New England Aquarium, there appears to be an increased use of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It is likely that the whales are moving into the Gulf to look for food as there are indications that the quality of the food in the Bay of Fundy is not as good as in previous years. However, the exact reason they're in the Gulf remains to be determined as researchers have only started to study the animals in there and their habitat use in the last few years.

Q: This story has been in the news/media since the first carcass was found back in June. What kind of feedback/ reactions are you seeing from the public?

A: These are very charismatic species which capture the hearts of Canadians. They are an important part of our oceans ecosystems and people are greatly concerned what the loss of this many animals could mean to this critically endangered population as well as to the overall functioning of our ocean ecosystem. There has been great outpouring of support for the work that everyone is doing, by many people from the general public. It has been incredible to have such support expressed for the critical work done by ourselves and our many partners.

Q: What do these findings tell us about the endangerment status of the species?

A: It has been long known that this population is impacted greatly by human activity. Having 10 dead right whales this year is devastating to the population and it remains to be seen how this will affect the long-term health of the population. The preliminary findings from the necropsies we've done to date indicate that human activities are implicated in the death of some of the animals we've examined. If we don’t stop or drastically reduce our impacts on this species, we are at great risk of losing them from the planet forever.

Q: What are scientists and experts doing to protect this species?

A: There has been a lot of research going on for many years to better understand these animals, their behavior and why they are found where they are (especially in areas seemingly new for them like the Gulf of St. Lawrence). Recovery plans, strategies and action plans have been developed which identified the conservation issues and some of the activities that must be undertaken to save this species. We are very excited Fisheries and Oceans Canada and other federal departments are taking this situation so seriously now and committing to work with partners and industry to protect and, ultimately, save this species. 

Q: What can the public do to help protect this species?

A: Many things are obvious like not throwing garbage in the ocean and limiting carbon emissions as this impacts the larger water cycle, of which the ocean is a major player. In terms of those who work on the ocean or use it for pleasure, it is important that all activities we undertake there are being done so with the consideration of other species. Everyone can make sure they are behaving cautiously around animals, reducing noise from their equipment, minimizing rope used in fishing activities and avoiding areas heavily used by animals. Everyone using or relying on the oceans can make choices to ensure the protection of these species and the sustainability of their activities. It is also critical that members of the public report any sightings of these animals, especially when they see animals that are distressed or dead. If they'd like more information on this, they can visit our website: www.marineanimals.ca