Wrong Times For the Right Whale

Right Whale, right photo - courtesy of NOAA

Why have the past few months been the deadliest in decades?

Scientists are puzzled and looking for a solution as to why over 12 north atlanticAtlantic right whales have died in the past 2 months. A whale carcass was initially discovered in “west of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine in the south-central area of the gulf.” Since then 11 more have been found around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

As the situation becomes increasingly complex, the government is looking for public help. One campaign by the governmentgovernment campaign, showcased on letstalkwhales.ca, outlines a variety of threats to the right whale. It indicates hazards such as entanglements, vessel strikes, and insufficient food supply as possible threats. However, these do not explain why right whales are dying at such an increased rate. With only 525 of these endangered whales remaining, the twelve deaths represent a critical 2% of their population.

Scientists, such as  senior researcher Amy Knowlton at the Anderson Cabot Center Amy Knowlton, are directly investigating the cause of these deaths. This has come in the form of an autopsy on a deceased right whale named Peanut. Maclean’s notes that these types of whales are easily identifiable, as “The callosities (rough, irregular skin patches) form unique patterns that act like fingerprints”. The whale Peanut though, “was known and named for the nut-shaped white scar on his head.” The results of this autopsy have yet to be released, however.

In the meantime, officials are rushing to bolster preventative measures. Fisheries Minister Dominic Leblanc recently addressed these deaths in a news conference. The CBC reports that “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.”

Contemporary threats to whales have been examined. The Canadian Department of Ocean and Fisheries’ previously reported  issues such as stronger ropes by fisherman causing damage to the whales. One excerpt explained that “They recommended that ropes of reduced breaking strength be developed and tested in fixed gear fisheries, as they could contribute significantly to reducing entanglement risk while supporting viable fisheries,”

These reports and conservation efforts will take time before coming into effect. However, the marine programs manager for the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Sean Brilliant, notes that “Now they’re sort of looking for options of what to do and it’s an encouraging thing,”

This shift to conservation for the right whale is a drastic change from earlier years. Commercial fishing for right whales almost drove them to extinction in the early 1900s. The rRight whales first experiencedfirst  attempts at protection protecting the right whales was in the 1930s, by with the “Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.” NOAA Fisheries remarks though, that Japan and the Soviet Union did not acknowledge this agreement. Therefore, it wasn’t until  the “International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling” in 1949, before whales were truly protected.

As these mysterious whale deaths continue to rise, the government is intensifying measures to prevent the right whale from being driven to extinction, as they almost were during the peak of unregulated commercial fishing. Leblanc states “The government is prepared to ‘take all necessary steps.’”

Ben Wagg is a fourth year English Literature and Medieval Studies major at the University of Victoria and a volunteer for Skaana.com.