Why 12 right whales died in Canadian waters — and why more will if nothing is done
All eyes are on the Canadian government after a catastrophic year for the highly endangered species.
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HALIFAX, N.S.— A macabre joke in the field is that there are more North Atlantic right whale researchers than actual North Atlantic right whales.
The scientific community is tight-knit: on top of the hours many of them spend sardined together on research boats and survey planes, a consortium dedicated to studying and conserving the species gathers every year for a meeting that tips further towards family reunion than your average academic conference.
Still, as biologists, conservationists and policy-makers began filling an auditorium at St. Mary’s University very early on a Sunday morning in late October, the emotional register of the meeting felt unusually charged. Attendees greeted each other with bracing hugs.
In the last presentation before lunch, Tonya Wimmer, the director of the Marine Animal Response Society, stepped to the podium.
“I’m going to try to get through this,” she said, her voice cracking with tears. “It’s been a long summer.”
Between April and November this year, at least 16 North Atlantic right whales died, 12 of them in Canadian waters. The species is highly endangered: approximately 450 of the whales remain. The 16 deaths represented more than 3.5 per cent of the population, the equivalent of 1.25 million Canadians suddenly dying in the span of seven months.
Compounding the sorrow, the conservation community lost one of their own to the fight, an expert in at-sea whale rescues who had devoted years of his life to the species. His death knocked out one of the few immediate tools for dampening the crisis.
As the whale carcasses mounted, researchers and regulators reacted with alarm. The U.S. declared a marine mammal “unusual mortality event.” Canada shut a fishery and slowed ships. Aircraft, boats, and underwater drones were launched. Like forensics teams at crime scenes, wildlife pathologists converged on the bodies, but with tools and strategies befitting corpses that span 17 metres and weigh 70 metric tonnes.
The first vital question: what was killing these whales? A novel miasma, like a biotoxin or infectious disease? Or a spasm of more familiar threats, like ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear?
By midsummer, a pattern had begun to emerge. By fall, one thing was crystal clear: the death toll had been catastrophic, maybe existentially so.
This month, U.S. government officials said that extinction is a real possibility for the species if action is not taken soon. At the meeting in Halifax in October, scientists broadcast the same urgency — and while the problem is international, all eyes are on Ottawa.
Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the consortium’s chair, opened the meeting with a sobering calculation.
Just 100 or so breeding females are left alive, and if mortality rates stay what they have been even before 2017’s deadly assault, all of them could be gone in just over 20 years.
“We don’t have decades to fix this problem,” Baumgartner said. “Because of the pace of regulatory changes, we only have a couple years. And the longer we wait, the harder the problem will be to fix.”
The first right whale carcass in Canadian waters was found floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on June 6. A Canadian Coast Guard vessel spotted it 100 kilometres north of Prince Edward Island, in the ocean basin cupped by the New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Cape Breton coastlines.
Right whale deaths are never met with nonchalance. But it’s typical to encounter three or four a year, and this was 2017’s second: another carcass had been discovered in Cape Cod Bay in April. The species migrates up and down the eastern seaboard, from its calving grounds near Georgia and Florida to the food-rich waters off Maine, Massachusetts and the Maritimes.
The chillier Gulf of St. Lawrence had not been considered prime right whale habitat, but people spot them there occasionally. Dead ones aren’t unheard of.
“The immediate reaction was like — OK. We haven’t had one in a bit, but there’s one,” says Wimmer.
Wimmer’s organization, the Marine Animal Response Society, runs a hotline for reports of stranded, injured, and dead ocean creatures in the Maritimes. The organization fields calls about sharks, seals, turtles and more, but when a report of a right whale comes in, a particularly elaborate choreography kicks into action.
North Atlantic right whale numbers are so low — and interest in them so intense — that the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium is able to manage a photographic catalogue of nearly every individual in the species, more than 650,000 images of 724 whales, both living and dead. Each animal in the catalogue has a number, and in some cases a nickname (“Baldy,” “Sonnet,” “Van Halen”). The whale’s sex is noted, as is its age, if known.
Helpfully, right whales also sport patches of thickened skin called “callosities” on their heads, patterns that are unique to each whale. The catalogue offers a composite sketch of each whale’s callosities, and any scars, unusual colouration, funny-shaped flippers, or other identifying features. Records of sightings for each individual whale can stretch back decades.
When a dead right whale is spotted, researchers use these features to figure out which whale has been lost. So when the carcass was seen floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, researchers at the New England Aquarium, who curate the catalogue, were among the first people notified. Heather Pettis was one of them.
“Our initial reaction is, you know, ‘Damn.’ But also, we need to know who it is,” says Pettis, an associate scientist at the aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and executive administrator of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.
Pettis and her colleagues were able to quickly identify the animal: #3746, a 10-year-old male.
For nearly two weeks, all was quiet. “And then the bomb dropped,” says Wimmer.
On June 18, another carcass was discovered in the same basin in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The next day, a carcass was spotted nearby.
Initially, officials assumed they were separate sightings of the same carcass. “And then when we got the photos, we said, ‘These are two different whales.’ Which was a little bit of a kicker,” says Pettis. They identified both: Panama, a male at least 17 years old, and Glacier, a 33-year-old male.
Two days after Glacier, the year’s fifth dead whale was spotted. The day after that, the sixth. The next day, a seventh.
“That was when we started sending emails that were like, ‘This is an unprecedented event. We are in uncharted territory. What is going on?’” says Pettis.
Pettis and her colleagues dropped all their other work to ID the animals. Because dead right whales are almost always discovered floating on their backs, they had to rely on small marks and subtle colour differences. The fifth, sixth and seventh deaths were Starboard and Contrail — 11- and 12-year-old females, both just reaching reproductive age — and #1207, a male first seen in 1980 who was at least 37.
As the American scientists scrambled to identify the whales, another discussion was underway in Canada: whether, and how, to necropsy the carcasses.
“The only way we’re going to know what to focus on and if we’re doing well is to look at the dead animals and say, why did they die?” says Wimmer.
But right whales are massive, and their carcasses are expensive and logistically complicated to recover: a necropsy is impossible without permits, boats, funding, and other logistical support from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
“Especially when you’re dealing with a highly endangered species like the right whale, I and others — my colleagues in biological sciences — will argue that every single whale needs to be examined,” says Pierre-Yves Daoust, a wildlife pathologist at the University of P.E.I.’s Atlantic Veterinary College.
Daoust is also the Atlantic region co-ordinator of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, a network of veterinary specialists. Daoust has necropsied right whales in the past, and was also among the first people notified each time a new death was reported in Canada.
“There may have been some reticence, reluctance or some hesitation early on about doing the necropsy of perhaps the first whale that showed up. But when there are two, and then there are three, DFO came fairly quickly to the conclusion that this needed to be done.”
At the beginning of the Canada Day long weekend, a crew of more than two dozen volunteers assembled on a beach near Norway, P.E.I. Food, water, and porta-potties were available. An excavator, essential heavy machinery, had been rented. There were ropes, hooks, and many, many knives: a senior DFO snow crab scientist would spend most of holiday weekend sharpening them, a critical task.
“We did three whales, three days: a whale per day. Which is pretty much unheard of,” says Wimmer.
On June 29, the team got to work on their first carcass — Glacier, the 33-year-old male.
Their first step, says Daoust, was to take more than 50 measurements, including blubber thickness. Thin blubber can indicate that the animal starved. But Glacier had appropriately thick blubber for the time of year, the vets found.
Next, the team made a long cut down the animal’s midline and began to peel blubber away with the help of the excavator. Once the whale’s musculature was exposed, this tissue was examined and removed.
The vets had hoped to assess the whale’s liver, kidneys, heart, and other internal organs. If discoloured or surrounded by film or pus, an infectious disease might be the cause of death. But this whale had been dead for 10 days. Unless a right whale carcass is very fresh, its organs are usually liquefied: thick blubber acts like the seal of a pressure cooker, trapping the heat released as the body decomposes.
Daoust says that infection is impossible to rule out, but unlikely. Dolphins and seals, which pack together in tight pods, sometimes suffer from outbreaks of distemper or other diseases. But right whales disperse more widely throughout the ocean, limiting the ability of a particularly virulent pathogen to trigger an epidemic.
The researchers were able to identify a portion of Glacier’s liver, which was sent to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s lab in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The lab regularly tests for the presence of biotoxins in shellfish bound for consumers, and could analyze whether the whale was poisoned by a toxic algal bloom. But the lab detected no evidence of biotoxins, and plankton testing in the Gulf found nothing unusual.
Finally, the vets reached the skeleton. Fractures and other signs of blunt-force trauma could indicate that a ship struck the whale — a marine traffic fatality.
Glacier didn’t have any broken bones. But Daoust and the team did discover thick, dark, putty-like material pooled at the base of the whale’s skull and top of the spinal cord. It was the first solid clue. If the dense network of veins and arteries that supplies blood to the whale’s brain had been ruptured by a ship strike, blood would hemorrhage into the whale’s body, where time and pressure would cook it into a clotted tar.
The next day, the team turned to #1207, the 37-year-old-plus male. Like Glacier, this whale showed no signs of starvation, poisoning, or infectious disease. But the animal’s spinal column, and possibly one of his lungs, was filled with the same dark, putty-like material. One of his inner ear bones was broken.
On Canada Day, the crew moved on to Starboard, the 11-year-old female. This necropsy was different: Starboard was found entangled in fishing gear.
DFO removed two snow crab traps from the whale’s body to safely tow it to the beach, but one of her flippers was still wrapped in rope and buoys. Beneath these tight tangles the necropsy team found scar tissue. Her blubber was thin.
At the end of an exhausting holiday weekend, the crew went home. Within days, the onslaught resumed.
On July 6, another dead right whale was found floating 60 kilometres west of the Magdalen Islands. Researchers weren’t able to ID the male, but the carcass was quickly necropsied along with one of the previously-seen animals — Panama — that had washed ashore nearby. Panama was too decomposed to determine a cause of death, but the unknown male’s skull was extensively fractured.
The same week, three live right whales were sighted tangled up in snow crab gear.
Fishing entanglements are a major problem for the species — perhaps the single biggest threat since the ban on commercial whaling, which drove right whales to the brink of extinction in the first place. Researchers think that stronger, modern ropes are one reason that the right whale population, which had gradually rebounded from even lower numbers in the 1990s, had been declining again for at least 5 years. A 2012 study found entanglement scars on 83 per cent of all known North Atlantic right whales.
Sometimes, a whale becomes so horribly snarled in fishing gear that it drowns. More often, entanglements are a chronic stressor: the animals grow thin and weak as they try to swim encumbered by heavy gear. One male right whale, Ruffian, dragged a 61 kilogram snow crab trap and 138 metres of rope from Canada to Florida before being disentangled.
“The injuries are really gruesome, and would never be tolerated if they happened to a land animal in plain view of the public,” says Baumgartner.
Fishing entanglements play a role on the other side of the population ledger, too: Right whale mortalities would not be such a concern if the species wasn’t also struggling to reproduce. Research has shown that entanglements impact the health of reproductive females more severely than other right whales, and that serious entanglements reduce their chances of becoming pregnant if they do survive. Only five new calves were spotted in 2017, compared to a recent average of 20. And while mature females can give birth every three years, the average interval in 2017 was over 10 years, with no new first-time moms.
A Newfoundland scientist, Jon Lien, pioneered techniques to free whales from cod fishing traps in 1978. From those early efforts, whale disentanglement has grown into a global network of highly-trained experts. In Canada, DFO licenses and supports rescue teams.
Right whales disentanglements are often particularly difficult, and success statistics are tough to come by: researchers sometimes have to wait years until an animal is re-sighted and confirmed as gear-free. But at least 13 calves have been born to female right whales freed by one of the Canadian and American teams in the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network.
“This population is so small we are essentially trying to help it recover one whale at a time,” says Moe Brown, senior scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute and the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. “And until we — and it’s a big we — can figure out a way to prevent entanglements, disentangling the whales that we actually do see is really the only tool that we have.”
Brown is a member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, a group that since 2002 has been releasing entrapped large whales in the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Of the three live right whales spotted entangled in the gulf in July, one shed its gear without help. The Campobello Whale Rescue Team responded to the other two aboard a DFO fast-response craft.
Joe Howlett, a co-founder of the team, led both efforts. Howlett was a commercial fisherman and a husband, father, and grandfather. In summer, when the lobster and scallop season ended, he captained the Shelagh, a Canadian Whale Institute research vessel, and helped lead the rescue team. He had years of experience and training, and had freed at least a dozen whales.
“The ocean had given him his living, his career, and it was his way of giving back,” says Brown.
On July 5, Howlett’s team successfully released one whale entangled in snow crab fishing gear. On July 10, the team disentangled the second, a young male. Howlett had just cut the whale free when it suddenly dove. The whale’s massive tail rose up and struck Howlett, killing him almost instantly.
The entire right whale community came to a standstill.
Wimmer learned of the news in the middle of the necropsy on the Magdalen Islands. “Several of us had to step away, for obvious reasons,” she says. DFO quickly suspended right whale disentanglements, as did the U.S. They remain on pause in Canada while Transport Canada investigates Howlett’s death.
Howlett’s funeral marked only the briefest respite. Four days later, a U.S.-led aerial survey returned to the sky and immediately spotted another dead whale floating in the gulf. The same day, a live whale was seen entangled in fishing gear.
“There was just no break in mourning. We’re mourning all of these dead whales, we’re mourning the death of Joe, and the first opportunity folks get to get back to work, it’s starting all over again,” says Pettis.
The dead whale was Peanut, an older male the research community knew well. Peanut was necropsied on Miscou Island, New Brunswick: he also had lesions suggestive of blunt-force trauma. The entangled whale was Mayport, a female who had birthed a calf last year. No response was permitted because of the disentanglement suspension, and Mayport has not been seen since.
In late July and early August, DFO scientists and staff discovered four right whale carcasses shellacked along the western coast of Newfoundland. Jack Lawson, a DFO research scientist, flew, drove, hiked, and scrambled along blubber-slicked, rocky beaches to reach all of them. They were too decomposed for a full necropsy — “blubber pancakes,” Lawson says — but he was able to recover flipper bones that were sent to Trent University for genetic analysis. The results showed that one of the four was Contrail, a whale that had been seen earlier and sampled at sea by Daoust. The other three were new.
By the end of the summer, two more carcasses had been found in the U.S., and another entangled male that could not be rescued was spotted in the gulf. Wimmer, Daoust, and the crew had by then necropsied six North Atlantic right whales. A half dozen leaders of that effort decided to meet in Moncton and plan a report summarizing their findings, “because they weren’t isolated incidents,” says Wimmer. “This is a catastrophic, population-wide event.”
Just before they arrived, news came in: yet another dead right whale had been found floating off the coast of New Brunswick, the 12th in Canadian waters, and 15th of the year. They met to discuss the report, then kept driving north to necropsy the animal.
It was perhaps the most wrenching right whale death that summer: a 2-year-old female hopelessly entangled in fishing gear. The ropes had been wrapped around her so tightly that she likely drowned.
“The weight that just sort of fell on people, you could really just feel it. Because everyone thought we were done,” says Wimmer. “It was tiny, and it was wrapped up in gear so badly. That was crushing.”
For the right whale research community, the meeting in Halifax was the first opportunity to process the summer’s crisis. The day would start with hugs and end with beers. Two presenters choked up before lunch time.
The presentation that brought Wimmer to tears was a synopsis of the seven necropsies. “Let’s never do this again,” she said as she stepped away from the mic.
Two of the whales had clearly died from fishing gear entanglements, on top of the five live ones spotted entangled at sea, some of whose fates are unknown. Four others, and possibly a fifth, had likely died from blunt force trauma: ship strikes.
One of the most puzzling questions was what so many North Atlantic right whales were doing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, one of the country’s busiest shipping and fishing routes. In Canada, the Grand Manan Basin, in the Bay of Fundy, and Roseway Basin, off the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia, have been considered primary right whale territory. Both areas were identified as “critical habitat” under the Species At Risk Act in 2009, but after languishing in a backlog of orders, strategies and protection plans were made official only this month.
But around 2011, right whales sightings dropped off in Fundy, Roseway, and long-established feeding areas in the U.S. Researchers weren’t sure where the whales had gone until two years ago, when a U.S-led aerial survey discovered about 30 of them in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. This year, they tripled their effort and found triple the whales, over 100 different individuals.
With so little historical data, it’s hard to say how unusual this year was. Right whales move around a lot, and at any given moment a big chunk of the population is unaccounted for.
Have scientists overlooked an important right whale habitat in the gulf — and, worryingly, perhaps many other mortalities? Or are whales increasingly congregating there? Probably both, researchers say: they are finding more whales because they are spending more time looking, but the species has also increased its presence in the region in the past four or five years.
An even tougher question to answer is why. Right whales feed exclusively on a type of tiny zooplankton called copepods. Fundy and Roseway both have rotating currents that, like flushing a toilet bowl, concentrate copepods in big, accessible clouds. But the availability of copepods may be changing. Meanwhile, the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other ocean region in the world. Climate change is likely a factor, but the reasons that species’ ranges shift are always complex.
Whatever the cause, the Canadian government found itself with an endangered species crisis on its hands in the middle of the 401 of the Atlantic. Ottawa scrambled to find emergency solutions.
In July, DFO closed a snow crab fishery in the southern part of the gulf, though 98 per cent of its quota had already been harvested. In August, Transport Canada issued a mandatory slowdown in the western gulf for ships of a certain size, and later even fined a Canadian Coast Guard vessel. Though most right whales have left the gulf by now, a handful remain, and the slowdown remains in place.
“Holy smokes, it’s like the dog just started speaking to me. I didn’t even know it could speak English,” says Sean Brillant, senior conservation biologist and manager of the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s marine program. Like many, Brillant was impressed by the speed of these changes.
But that was 2017.
“It’s already December. We can expect the whales in May. So we don’t have a lot of time,” says Moe Brown, the Canadian Whale Institute scientist.
“I certainly believe that the Canadian government does not want a repeat of what happened in 2017. But it remains to be seen what they will do in order to ensure that,” says Mark Baumgartner, the Woods Hole marine ecologist.
Though no policy changes will be painless, reducing the risk from ship strikes is arguably the simpler issue. The bucket of options is small but effective: speed restrictions and rerouting vessel traffic.
These measures are already in use elsewhere in Canadian waters. Brown led efforts to shift shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy, and helped implement a seasonal “area to be avoided” in the Roseway Basin. The changes reduced the risk of whale strikes by 80 to 90 per cent, while only marginally increasing transport time, and no right whale carcasses have been spotted in the Fundy shipping lanes or in Roseway since.
But such policies can be made far more precise with better knowledge of where right whales are and when. Researchers are excited about a new technology that could help: robots that listen underwater.
A few years ago, Baumgartner worked with engineers to create a small underwater acoustic device that can identify baleen whale calls: its on-board computer distinguishes between the plaintive moans and up-calls of a North Atlantic right whale, the chirping moos of a Humpback, and the nearly infrasonic bass line of a blue whale. When attached to a fixed buoy or an autonomous underwater vehicle, like a glider, the device captures data on whale calls and regularly uplinks the information to satellite, where it is relayed to scientists on land in near real time.
Acoustic surveys can only tell researchers that whales are present, not how many of them. Aerial campaigns are still important for counting whales and covering ground quickly, while boat-based surveys allow researchers to approach whales and collect biological samples. But underwater robots are cheaper than planes, long-lasting, and can cover huge areas like the Gulf of St. Lawrence with very little energy.
“The ears of the gliders are open 24/7. They’re not dependent on weather, they’re not dependent on light of day. It’s a really terrific tool to help us learn a lot more about the distribution of these whales, the seasonality of these whales,” says Brown.
DFO has already partnered with Dalhousie University to launch acoustically-equipped gliders in the gulf. But the research community is watching for the department’s full monitoring plans: Canadian-led aerial surveys for right whales, which could have discovered the species’ presence in the southern gulf, were meagre to non-existent until the scale of the crisis became apparent this summer.
“It is true the Canadian government had not been spending a lot of time looking for whales in Canadian waters. There was good evidence they were there (in the gulf), but they were not doing it. That was a shortcoming for sure,” says Brillant.
“Certainly, they are a bit late in coming to the game, but we’re happy to see them now.”
Fishing gear entanglements is the far thornier issue. Unlike the shipping industry, the fishing industry consists of thousands of independent workers scattered along the coasts, with different gear and practices depending on what they fish and where. It has proven incredibly difficult to find a solution that protects right whales, doesn’t rob anyone of their livelihood, and can be implemented quick enough to avert extinction.
Scientists are excited about ropeless technology. Lobster, crab, and other “fixed-gear” fisheries rely on heavy rope running from the surface to traps on the sea floor. Ropeless traps would sit at depth until an acoustic device aboard the fishing boat triggers the release of either a spool of rope or the trap itself, which floats to the surface and can be hauled in.
This technology already exists, but not in a form that could be rolled out tomorrow. Though costs would go down if they were widely used, the systems are currently expensive. Fishers worry about how they will avoid laying their lobster and crab traps on top of each other; in some fisheries, they would be loath to communicate trap locations to their competitors. While none of these issues are insurmountable and many fishers say they would go ropeless if researchers can prove it works, right whales may not have enough time for researchers to tinker with the details.
Many other measures are in play: lighter ropes that break more easily; coloured rope that right whales may be able to see and avoid; rejigging gear and practices to use less rope; campaigns to get old “ghost” gear out of the water. The Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery — Canada’s second-most valuable fishery, and one under particular scrutiny because of its role in this summer's known entanglements — has suggested using icebreakers to open the waters and the season earlier, hopefully missing the arrival of the whales.
Researchers and fishers are in a fragile, trust-building phase. They need each other: right whale population declines are unlikely to turn around without solving the fishing gear problem, and fishers fear that government will simply shut them down. The Marine Stewardship Council had certified Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab as “sustainable” in 2012, a market boost, but announced in November it would launch an expedited audit because of the whale deaths.
Everyone wants to make sure that any new regulations, and the burdens they place on fishers, will actually help whales: 10 years after the U.S. brought in mandatory gear modifications for fisheries, researchers found it had no impact on the whale entanglement rate.
“Our fishermen (don’t) get up in the morning saying, ‘Well I’m going to catch a whale today — I look forward to it,’ ” says Martin Mallet, executive director of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union. “We want to find a solution.”
The day after the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s Halifax meeting, news arrived from Cape Cod: another right whale carcass had been spotted. In November, yet another was found nearby: it is very likely the year’s 17th North Atlantic right whale fatality, but genetics will confirm it.
In November, the minister of fisheries and oceans, Dominic LeBlanc, hosted a roundtable in Moncton to meet with representatives from the shipping, cruise, and fishing industries, as well as scientists, conservationists, and Indigenous groups. LeBlanc acknowledged urgent action is needed to protect the species.
Just before the roundtable, the 17 scientists on the consortium’s board sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“Despite the fact that the Consortium is largely a science-based organization, we do not contend that more research is needed to understand the effects of fishing and shipping on right whales. What is required now is bold and swift action to reduce fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes,” they wrote. “We urge you to take seriously the warning signs of an impending extinction.”
“I really believe we have technological solutions to these problems,” says Baumgartner.
“It’s really now just a matter of will.”