Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans has confirmed the death of a fifth North Atlantic right whale in Canadian waters this year, prompting Transport Canada to immediately implement a precautionary speed restriction in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
For vessels of 20 metres or more in legth, there is now a speed restriction of 10 knots when traveling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence and in the two designated shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island.
Vessels of that size have already been operating under pre-existing speed restriction of 10 knots in a large area in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, since April 28, 2019. Those speed restrictions will be in place until mid-November.
Failure to comply with the speed limits can result in a $25,000 fine.
WATCH (Feb 7, 2019:): The federal government is easing up restrictions aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales.
A cause of death for the fifth whale, spotted on the shore of Quebec’s Anticosti Island Thursday, has yet to be determined. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) says scientists collected samples for analysis.
“We are currently working closely with our marine mammal response partners to assess necropsy options,” the department said on Thursday.
The right whale is one of the largest mammals in the sea, and the news of another death this year is a blow to a species whose global population was estimated at approximately 411 in 2018.
“This is really a nightmare because this population can’t afford a single death particularly with older females and we’ve at least had one older female already die,” said Boris Worm, professor in Marine Conservation Biology from Dalhousie University.
Worm said the whales are relatively new in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“They used to hang out in the Bay of Fundy in the Nova Scotia shelf and there were well known hot spots that were a reasonably well monitored and protected and we were able to keep whale mortality down for many years,” he said.
According to Worm, the whales changed course “because likely their food sources changed.”
“Their food sources are not available as much anymore in the Bay of Fundy now they go to the gulf to feed in the summer, to fatten up for the winter and they are not as safe there as they used to be in their old habitat,” he added.
The first whale confirmed dead this year was spotted June 4.
It was later identified as a nine-year-old male named Wolverine due to a series of three propeller cuts on his tail stock that reminded researchers of the three blades on the hand of the Marvel comic book character of the same name.
Veterinarians from the University of Prince Edward Island and the University of Montreal conducted a necropsy on June in Miscou Island, N.B.
The DFO has said that further testing is needed to determine Wolverine’s cause of death.
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A 40-year-old female named Punctuation was the next whale to be found after an aerial survey team discovered the body floating off the Magdalen Islands on June 20.
Punctuation was towed to Cape Breton on Monday where a veterinarian team from the University of Prince Edward Island performed a necropsy.
“Clearly the whales are doing things we’re not expecting them to do and our regulations are not keeping up at pace,” said Worm.
On Thursday, DFO says that the preliminary findings from that necropsy are “are compatible with death due to sharp trauma, consistent with vessel strike.”
Only hours after the necropsy began two more dead right whales were spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Monday.
They have since been identified as a Comet, a 33-year-old male, and an 11-year-old female.
DFO says the pair of whales were located near New Brunswick’s Acadian Peninsula and to the west of Quebec’s Magdalen Island. The department is still working to determine what their next steps will be.
In 2017, 12 North Atlantic right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Necropsies on seven of those whales found four died from trauma consistent with vessel collisions while two deaths were the result of entanglement in fishing gear.
No whales were reported to have died in Canadian waters in 2018, although three carcasses were found off the coast the U.S.
“Last year a huge effort was expanded to keep the whales safe and it worked perfectly in Canadian waters, I will note that 3 whales died in US waters. Now we have five deaths so something that we’ve been doing last year isn’t working this year so I think we have to go back to the drawing board,” said Worm.
“We clearly need to pull all stops in finding out where the whales are at any given point in time which could include overflights which are already down, listening for the whales underwater through acoustic devices which is also done and even looking through satellites,” he added.
With files from The Canadian Press