North Atlantic right whale deaths appear to be from collisions with ships, fishing gear – Newfoundland & Labrador

Why has this summer been so deadly for North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence?

“It’s a question that a lot of researchers, including myself, are pondering at the moment,” said Kim Davies, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University. She looks at how underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technology could be used to alert ships if whales are in their path.

Ten dead North Atlantic whales have washed up on the shores along the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer. Four of those carcasses have wound up on the western coast of Newfoundland.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc addressed some concerns at a news conference Thursday afternoon, saying the federal government has been working with various industries to ensure the whales are being made as safe as possible.

Running into ships and fishing gear

Davies said that of those 10 whales, there have been at least six necropsies done on the carcasses so far.

Preliminary reports for three whales show that blunt force trauma contributed to their death.

Davies said it’s logical to assume that trauma came from collisions with ships, and that evidence of internal bleeding shows they were hit while they were alive.

DFO personnel take samples from a dead right whale that washed up on the shore in Cape Ray, on the west coast of Newfoundland. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Another preliminary report shows one whale may have died because it was tangled up in fishing gear too many times.  

Researchers are waiting for preliminary reports from at least two more necropsies, but the rest of the whales may be too decomposed for testing to be done.

‘A lot more work to do’

During Thursday’s news conference, LeBlanc said his department and Transport Canada has been working together on ways to ensure the safety of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but it presents challenges due to the volume of shipping and marine traffic in the area.

It’s not a typical environment this time of year for the 80 to 100 right whales currently feeding in the area, LeBlanc said, and a notice to mariners to slow down was issued last week.

LeBlanc took a flyover of the area this week, saying it was “an absolutely majestic sight and a privilege for me to see these majestic creatures,” but added it was difficult to spot them without advanced scientific equipment.

He added there is “a lot more work do to” between various departments to ensure the safety and survivial of the right whale population.

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