Wolverine—his carcass seen here on Miscou Island, New Brunswick in early June—was the first right whale fatality in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since 2017. Since then, seven more whales have died.
Wolverine—his carcass seen here on Miscou Island, New Brunswick in early June—was the first right whale fatality in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since 2017. Since then, seven more whales have died.

Why right whale extinction is on the horizon

Despite the attention paid to every death, we can’t figure out how to save right whales from our deadly waters.

Tonya Wimmer has gotten used to being the bearer of bad news. Every time someone spots a dead right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence—which has happened eight times this year alone—her Halifax-based organization, the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), gets the call. Then it’s Wimmer’s job to notify scientists, government officials and conservation groups across the continent, setting in motion a process that’s become dismaying in its familiarity. “I imagine there are several hundred people throughout Canada and the US that hate seeing my name in their inbox,” she says.

Once word is out, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) will fly a plane to scout the whale’s location. If researchers decide to do a necropsy to pinpoint the cause of death, a ship will tow the whale by its tail to the nearest beach. There, a team of 20 to 30 biologists, veterinarians and students will be waiting in chest waders for the broken and bloated body.

Surrounded by the stench of rotting flesh, and wielding knives more than a foot long, the team will slice through the whale’s slippery skin and blubber, carving long strips into the carcass. When the cutting is done, they’ll use an excavator to peel back each strip, revealing bones and decomposing organs underneath. Each step of the way, the scientists will search for sharp cuts and gashes on the skin, signs of internal bleeding, or fishing rope embedded so deep that bone has started to grow around it. The team will photograph and catalogue each one.

They’ll do this for up to 15 hours, until the all the skin has been flayed, until each bone has been wrested from the skeleton, until baleen has been chiseled out of slack-jawed maw—until it’s done. The goal is to figure out how each dead North Atlantic right whale was killed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Each death is a tragedy, but in some ways an opportunity, to find new evidence that can be used to influence policy decisions to help save this incredibly at-risk species.

Since 2017, 20 whales, out of a population of about 400, have been killed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, most from ship strikes or entanglement in fishing line. That year, the government of Canada enacted strict regulations for both the crab fishery and shipping industries. “It was like a hammer coming down,” says Wimmer.

“The shipping industry, the fishery, everyone wants to solve this, but we’re not there yet. We haven’t done enough.”

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Entire zones were closed to the snow crab fishery, and vessels longer than 20 metres (think ferries, cargo, Coast Guard and military ships) were ordered to slow down. When no whales were found dead in 2018 (though three were spotted late in the summer, entangled in gear), it looked like these changes were working. In early 2019, seven calves were born after a year with no births—a development seen by many as a hopeful sign.

But as summer settled in this year, things changed. Between June 4 and July 19, eight right whales turned up dead in the gulf. There’s no certain reason why this year is different; some of the regulations enacted in 2018 were changed or relaxed slightly in 2019, but last year’s reprieve might have simply been a stroke of dumb luck.

“The hard thing is that the right whales are really suffering huge losses in the area, and we don’t have the luxury of time,” says Moira Brown, senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute, a research organization based in Campobello Island, NB. “The shipping industry, the fishery, everyone wants to solve this, but we’re not there yet. We haven’t done enough.”

The whales’ plight really exploded into public consciousness in 2017, when 12 whales died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and veteran Campobello whale rescuer Joe Howlett was tragically killed while cutting fishing line off an entangled right whale off the coast of Shippagan, NB. But according to those in the know, the current crisis has been building for years—at least in part to a delayed response by government to warnings from the conservation community.

The problem is reminiscent of all the ways we fail to make societal change in the face of scientific evidence. We know what do to—but it’s not that easy. Too many people, industries and cultures have to change in concert, and not everyone has the same priorities. Monumental shifts take time.

Punctuation was a 38-year-old female killed by a ship strike. While the team of researchers was working on Punctuation’s necropsy—late June in Petit-Étang, Cape Breton—three more dead whales were spotted at sea. - NICK HAWKINS
Nick Hawkins
Punctuation was a 38-year-old female killed by a ship strike. While the team of researchers was working on Punctuation’s necropsy—late June in Petit-Étang, Cape Breton—three more dead whales were spotted at sea.

On June 25, wildlife pathologist Megan Jones and her team of students and veterinarians, mostly based out of the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown, were conducting their second necropsy of the season on a quiet beach in Petit-Étang, Cape Breton. In one direction, the deep green of the Cape Breton Highlands stretched across the horizon. In the other, a massive, mangled dead whale lay limp on the sand.

Punctuation was a 38-year-old female who’d borne eight calves, two of whom have given birth to calves of their own. On this day, she had a six-foot gash running down her back from a ship strike. “Innards that should have been on her belly side were coming out her back,” says Wimmer. Judging by the whale’s enormous size, she’d been healthy, even though scars indicated she’d been hit by ships at least twice before.

The necropsy crew worked for 15 hours disassembling Punctuation, piece by piece. When it got dark, they worked by the light of the excavator. Jones remembers Wimmer approaching her three times that day to tell her three new dead whales had been found in the gulf. “We did three whale necropsies in a seven-day period in three different provinces,” Jones says.

The attention paid to each and every whale’s death might be new, but right whale deaths, of course, are not. Right whales—so called because they socialize at the ocean’s surface and contain so much blubber they float like corks after they’re killed, making them the “right whale” to hunt—were almost wiped out by commercial whaling in the 19th and early 20th centuries. By the 1970s, scientists didn’t even know if there were any whales left. In 1980, however, a group was found congregating in the Bay of Fundy.

After 1986, when commercial whaling was finally banned, threats to the species became twofold: collisions with ships, and entanglement in fishing gear. Ship strikes break skulls and spines, and propellers carve up flesh. Nylon rope wraps around their bodies, tearing through skin, blubber and bone, even as the whales survive and swim for years while entangled.

“There is going to be a period of trial and error, but the whales can’t really afford any errors.”

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In 2002, shipping lanes were moved out of right whale feeding grounds in the Grand Manan Basin in the Bay of Fundy, and the Roseway Basin off the southern coast of Nova Scotia. Seven years later, the population had grown to almost 500 whales. It looked like success.

Around that same time, however, the whales began moving out of those waters, and no one knew where to find them. For reasons still not entirely understood, the whales’ only source of food, called zooplankton, largely disappeared from the Bay of Fundy. (One theory is that the Gulf of Maine has simply become too warm for certain types of the tiny crustaceans.) The whales are not electronically tagged, but surveilled by observers on planes and ships. And the ocean is a big place.

Then, in 2015, the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—armed with information about potential new habitat locations from Canadian researchers like University of New Brunswick’s Kim Davies—started flying surveillance planes over the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “What we discovered was very exciting, very curious, very new, very unexpected,” says Davies.

That summer, more whales were spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence than in the Bay of Fundy. But this wasn’t exactly good news. The gulf is a virtual marine highway straight into the heart of North America, feeding thousands of ships a year into ports from Quebec to the Great Lakes.

Here, massive container ships didn’t slow down, and the sea was a maze of snow crab fishing gear from May to July—precisely when the whales arrived. More than 80 percent of them bore entanglement scars, and calving rates had dropped by 40 percent.

And that brings us to 2019, and eight whales dead so far. No one was prepared for this. But we could have been.

Last fall, the federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, Julie Gelfand, released an audit report on the protection of marine mammals in Canada. In an October meeting with the Parliamentary Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, she told a group of MPs that the government had been “very slow to take action to reduce threats to marine animals.” What they did implement in 2018 with regards to right whales, she argued, was “reactive, limited and late.”

Gelfand’s not the only one pointing out delays in government action. In a paper released earlier this year, Davies and the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Sean Brilliant noted that though a right whale recovery strategy (required under the Species-at-Risk Act) had been finished in 2009, “thereafter no significant new federal action to project right whales occurred until the 2017 mortality crisis.”

On the phone from his office in Halifax, Brilliant says, “there is no doubt that if we had done something [then], we wouldn’t be in the dire situation we’re in now.”

In 2009, the federal government released a right whale recovery strategy developed in partnership with non-government researchers like the whale institute’s Moira Brown. The strategy outlined recovery objectives, including reducing mortality due to vessel strikes and entanglements. A step-by-step guide to achieve these goals was to be laid out in a “recovery action plan,” to be finished within five years of the initial strategy. By 2017, the action plan was three years late. (Though, as Brown points out, the fact that researchers had trouble finding the whales’ new habitat, after they started moving out of the Bay of Fundy in 2010, might have added to the delay.)

In an email to The Coast, a DFO representative wrote that a proposed action plan was finally completed and posted for public comment in 2016, and that “a final version of this Action Plan was prepared in 2017, and was awaiting publication when mortalities in the Gulf of St. Lawrence occurred.”

Of course, everything changed in 2017. The government enacted emergency regulations that year and in 2018. They included speed restrictions, and fishery closures both permanent and temporary, depending on the area. If a single whale was spotted in a temporary-closure zone, all gear in that zone had to come out of the water, and the fishery in that zone was shut down for 15 days.

After 2018 passed with no deaths, those rules were amended after consultation with the fishing and shipping industries. For instance, in response to resupply delays to local communities and cruise ship cancellations, Transport Canada removed some speed restrictions near the Magdalene Islands and north of Anticosti Island (in the northern part of the gulf). “The rationale was that there had been no right whale sightings in the last couple of years in [those areas],” says Michelle Sanders, director of clean water policy for Transport Canada.

“We don’t have a silver bullet to solve this problem. Clearly we need to change the way we use these industries on the ocean, but how we change them isn’t so clear.”

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Also loosened was the rule that saw closures when one whale was spotted, instead requiring three to be spotted. (Though this reverted back to one whale after the deaths in June and July.) DFO also changed the shape and the size of permanent-closure areas, based on data showing where 90 percent of the right whales had been seen in peak fishing season in 2018. That decision was a subject of debate by non-government scientists, who argue DFO should have relied on location data from every year since 2015.

And indeed, when the whales started showing up in May and June this spring, they were seen much farther east and north than previously, many outside of closure areas and one inside the shipping lane.

DFO’s director of fisheries resource management, Adam Burns, says there were some changes to the static area, but he stresses, “The total area of protection of static"—permanent—"and dynamic"—temporary—"zones is the same as 2018.”

Whether these changes led to this year’s mortality crisis is difficult to say. There are other unknowns affecting the whales’ safety, too. Besides not being able to predict where the whales will head each year when they get into the gulf, we’re still not even sure what migratory path they take to get there. 

“We don’t have a silver bullet to solve this problem,” says Sean Brilliant “We can’t put a stop sign at the tip of the Cabot Strait and say no ships allowed. And we can’t say no fishing allowed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence…. Clearly we need to change the way we use these industries on the ocean, but how we change them isn’t so clear.”

When four of the seven right whale calves born this year were spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence earlier this summer, it was seen as a good news story, a sign of hope for the species. (Though Tonya Wimmer of MARS admits that knowing those babies were among the ships and the fishing line was a source of anxiety. “My immediate reaction,” she says, “was, ‘Oh my dear god, they need to get out of the gulf.’”)

Now that more whales have been found dead this year than were born, the population is back to where it started before June. The whales have been worse off, but never, in recent history, have so many individuals been so sickly or maimed. Scientists are now warning we may only have about 20 years to save the species before it’s functionally extinct.

The flip side of the recent tragedy is that it became a problem no one could ignore. On top of fishing and shipping regulations, the federal government is now supporting the robust right whale research and conservation community through a $167.4-million Whales Initiative, announced in 2018.

“These vessels are as big as skyscrapers. These ships cannot stop, and they cannot steer.”

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Researchers are trying to make up for lost time. Brilliant is working with fishers on testing ropeless gear technology, and since this could take years to develop, DFO and the fishery are investigating the use of line with weak links, or a lower breaking strength, to reduce the severity of entanglements. Davies is researching zooplankton and oceanography to better understand whale movements, and there’s talk from scientists about the benefit of implementing mandatory slow-downs across the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence.

But there is a real possibility that what we’re doing now is simply going to be too little, too late. As with our response to the emergency of climate change, forcing systemic shifts to the status quo requires massive coordination between government, scientists and industry, and it becomes more and more difficult as time runs short.

Society is like Brilliant’s description of a cargo vessel moving through a shipping lane: “These vessels are as big as skyscrapers,” he says. “These ships cannot stop, and they cannot steer.”

“We need to roll our sleeves up our arms and start hammering out protection measures that do more than the ones are doing now,” says Brown. “There is going to be a period of trial and error, but the whales can’t really afford any errors."

Correction: Speaking of errors, until we corrected them on August 26, there were two mistakes in the text of this story. First, the whale in question is the North Atlantic right whale, not the North American right whale as we initially published. And second, we over-stated the effects of the government’s emergency regulations limiting snow crab fishing in certain zones. We said: "If a single whale was spotted in a temporary-closure zone, all gear had to come out of the water, and the fishery was shut down for 15 days." To be clear, the regulation only applies to the gear and the fishery in that zone where the whale was spotted. We apologize for not paying more attention.


Chelsea Murray is a writer and editor based in Halifax, and co-founder of The Deep, The Coast's sister site publishing longform journalism for Atlantic Canada.

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