This has been a deadly summer for the endangered North Atlantic right whale. By the first week of August, ten dead right whales had been found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence or washed up on the west coast of Newfoundland. These deaths are significant because, despite a slowly rebounding population, there just aren’t that many North Atlantic right whales, only slightly more than 500 in existence.

Preliminary findings from necropsies performed on several of the whales by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) showed evidence that some had been struck by a ship. Right whales are prone to taking naps on the surface of the ocean. While big, they are hard to see; many of the huge vessels that move through the Gulf are on autopilot in any case.

Another whale was found entangled in snow crab gear. Snow crab is an important fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A sizable stock is found north and east of the Magdalen Islands. Fishermen set traps in deep water on sandy or muddy bottom. These are big, heavy, conical-shaped traps, 6 or 7 feet in diameter, made of welded steel and poly line.

Attention to the situation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was further heightened when a whale disentangler, Joe Howlett of Campobello Island, was killed after helping disentangle another right whale from snow crab gear off New Brunswick on July 10. He was one of only a few certified whale disentanglers in Canada and worked closely with the New England Aquarium and the Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod in the U.S. DFO and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) promptly suspended all large whale disentanglement work; that prohibition was removed in the United States for all but North Atlantic right whales on July 18.

The whales are protected in the U.S. under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In Canada, the whales are protected under the Species at Risk Act. In the U.S., a group of public and private individuals called the Large Whale Take Reduction Team have worked since 1997 to devise methods to protect whales from entanglement in fishing gear and mortality due to ship strikes. As a result, lobstermen throughout New England have changed their gear and methods of fishing in order to lessen the chance of entanglement. Massachusetts lobstermen are even prohibited from fishing in Massachusetts Bay for three months in the winter and early spring when right whales traditionally return to the area.

 


Canada does not have similar measures in place. DFO created a right whale recovery strategy document in 2009. A proposed Action Plan to implement that recovery strategy was released for public comment last year. 

Meanwhile, the spate of right whale deaths in the Gulf of St. Lawrence points out a painfully obvious fact. The Gulf of Maine is not the place it once was. 

North Atlantic right whales typically migrate through the Gulf of Maine each year, beginning in Massachusetts Bay in the spring and moving into Bay of Fundy in late summer. But in recent years, the number of right whales around Grand Manan Island in the fall has dropped sharply. Meanwhile, they have turned up in unprecedented numbers in Massachusetts Bay. Aerial surveys conducted by the Center for Coastal Studies showed that at times 200 of the 526 estimated existing whales could be found in the Bay this spring.

Right whales give birth off Georgia and Florida in the winter months. The females don’t eat until they return to the Gulf of Maine in the early spring. That’s when they chow down on a good meal of zooplankton, specifically fat-rich Calanus finmarchicus, a species of copepod. Calanus finmarchicus is a subarctic species found throughout the North Atlantic and forms the foundation of the Gulf’s food web. Scientists have found that the Gulf of Maine stock of Calanus finmarchicus is partially supplied by the Labrador Current, a tendril of which swings down around Nova Scotia and enters the Gulf. However, there’s been a sharp drop in the volume of this important copepod in the Gulf, a change that is linked to temperature.

When you are hungry, you go to where you can find food — the refrigerator, the coffee shop down the street, your garden. North Atlantic right whales do the same. They prefer, however, to dine where a lot of their preferred food can be found. It takes as much work to gulp down a few hundred pounds of Calanus finmarchicus as it does to swallow two thousand pounds. So if there are fewer Calanus finmarchicus here in the Gulf of Maine, the whales are likely to travel to a location where there’s Calanus finmarchicus in abundance.

And that, unfortunately for them, seems to be the busy Gulf of St. Lawrence.