The United States and Canada are launching a joint investigation into the deaths of the endangered North Atlantic right whales, after the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared the die-off an “unusual mortality event,” or UME, on Thursday night.
Confirmation of the investigation came on Friday, during a phone conference involving representatives of NOAA and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
According to NOAA officials, a UME declaration is only triggered when there is significant die-off in a population and one that demands a significant response.
The investigation will be focused on finding the general cause of the deaths of the North Atlantic right whales. A final report will be used by both countries to focus their energies on correcting what has caused the deaths.
“The North Atlantic right whale recovery is fragile and is one of (NOAA’s and DFO’s) most difficult conservation efforts,” said David Gouveia, branch chief of NOAA’s protected species monitoring program.
“The population numbers are very low and recovery is very slow. Every factor influencing their ability to survive is significant.”
Since January, 13 of the whales have been found dead off the coasts of Canada and New England, a figure that was of concern for both countries.
“Thirteen animals is a lot of animals when you’re talking about a population of less than 500,” said Sean Hayes, of the NOAA. “It’s anywhere from two to three per cent of the entire population.”
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Before 2017, deaths of right whales were fairly uncommon with only 3.8 deaths per year on average.
The root cause of the deaths is still unknown but Matthew Hardy, DFO’s Aquatic Resources Management Division manager, pointed to boat strikes or fishing entanglement as the likely cause.
However, the investigation isn’t leaving anything to chance and is looking into any reason that may be behind the species’ die-off.
But results of the investigation aren’t expected immediately.
“A final report is likely months away as we see more of these whales move out of Canadian waters and into the U.S.,” said Teri Rowles, NOAA’s marine mammal health and stranding program co-ordinator.
“Individual necropsy results are closer to weeks away, especially for the most recent ones that have been found.”
Some necropsies may not produce that much information due to the advanced stage of decomposition from some of the bodies.
The departments also confirmed that there is at least one other ongoing UME event in the Atlantic region, with humpback whales having experienced die-offs, though not on the same scale.
The DFO has said they’re using new methods to track the species and monitor their status, including surveillance flights along the Gulf of St. Lawrence coastline.
— with files from the Associated Press