Whale carcass near Prince Edward Island on June 28.
Photo by Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Collisions with ships and fishing gear likely the cause of North Atlantic right whale deaths

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Ten North Atlantic right whales have died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since June 7, an unprecedented number that’s worrying environmentalists and scientists about the endangered species. In the past week alone, four whale carcasses have washed up on the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In a news conference this afternoon in Moncton, Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said based on necropsy reports, the whales likely died after colliding with ships and becoming entangled in fishing gear.

The necropsies also showed evidence of internal bleeding, which suggests that the whales were still alive when they were hit.

LeBlanc said that his department is working closely with Transport Canada to address the “serious and troubling situation”, and that the government of Canada will provide all necessary resources to ensure the protection of both the whales and the people working on the fishing ships.

Last month, 59-year-old fisherman Joe Howlett died after rescuing a whale that was trapped in snow crab fishing gear. Earlier this summer, another whale was saved from a snow crab net.  In response, the Fisheries Department shut down the snow crab fishing area two days early to prevent any further deaths.

LeBlanc said that while the Bay of Fundy is the traditional habitat for North Atlantic right whales, there are currently between 80 and 100 right whales in the gulf, which is two to three times higher than ever before. In the gulf, maritime traffic is much higher than in the Bay of Fundy, which could explain the rise in collisions this summer. As for why there are more whales in the gulf, scientists believe it could be because climate change has reduced food supplies, causing them to travel to new areas.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has scheduled surveillance flights along the coasts of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence to determine if there are any other possible whale carcasses and to monitor the positions of the live whales. The department is also supporting the development of a real-time whale alert system for mariners, which will reduce collisions in Canadian waters.

The North Atlantic right whale is considered an endangered species and is protected under the Canadian Species at Risk Act and the U.S. Endangered Species Act. There are only around 500 left in the world.