The significant increase in deaths of one of the world’s largest whale species was front and centre at the annual North Atlantic Right Whale meeting held in Halifax on Sunday.
“Calving rates are down, so there haven’t been many calves born this year, said marine ecologist Mark Baumgartner.
“Right now we have 15 known deaths and five births, so the population is down 10.”
Baumgartner was one of several scientists who addressed the meeting on the current status of the declining right whale population.
“This meeting is designed to get people up to speed on the status of right whales, trends in the population, threats that they face,” he said.
Scientists say the threats to the whales are primarily caused by humans and have taken a deadly toll on the endangered species.
“When you look at all mortalities over time, 70 per cent of it is due to humans,” said Scott Kraus, vice-president of research at the New England Aquarium.
Kraus adds that ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement have been killing right whales for years, but the significant increase in the mortality rate for 2017 is “startling.”
“The number of deaths are new in that it catches your attention and certainly focuses the mind when you have a dozen whales die in a given year,” Kraus said.
Highly trained rescue groups respond when entanglements are detected, but the July death of fisherman Joe Howlett during a rescue resulted in a temporary ban on entanglement efforts by the federal government.
“Joe was a good friend, and we really don’t want to ever see that happen again,” Kraus said. “On the other hand, he would not want us to quit on the disentanglement side of things — he’d want us to keep going.”
Kraus adds that now right whales are being detected and monitored more frequently in different areas.
“The real opportunity here is actually understanding how whales get entangled, especially in new fisheries, like the crab fishery in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence,” he said.
“So, every disentanglement is an opportunity for kind of a forensic analysis of what happened, why the whale [ran] into that gear, and how we [might] think about gear configurations in a way that it wouldn’t happen.”
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