In the span of five months, sixteen right whales have been found dead off the east coast of Canada and the U.S.
And scientists believe human activity is the likely culprit.
It’s a huge deal for the critically endangered species that has a population of only 500, and it’s raising new, urgent questions for scientists, fishermen and Indigenous people who want to save the whales.
The latest whale was found dead on Nashawena Island, near Cape Cod, according to a statement from the International Fund for Animal Welfare published late on Monday.
“The news of the most recent animal has just started to come in,” Tonya Wimmer, Director of the Marine Animal Response Society, told VICE News.
Scientists will be examining the whale to find the cause of death, Wimmer said over the phone from Halifax, Nova Scotia during a break at an international whale conference.
Almost 1,800 whale enthusiasts and scientists from about 70 countries have descended upon the east coast city to talk about marine mammal conservation, and everyone seems to be talking about the right whale deaths, she said.
Scientists have performed necropsies — whale autopsies — on a handful of the whale corpses, and have concluded that boat strikes and fishing gear entanglement are to blame for the deaths.
“We’re looking at animals that are sadly dead because of human activity.”
“Some did die because of blunt trauma, likely due to vessel collisions, and we also have a couple that were entangled in fishing gear,” Wimmer said. “We’re looking at animals that are sadly dead because of human activity.”
Over the last few years, there have been reports of more right whales flocking to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a body of water sandwiched between Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland at the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean, possibly in search of food, Wimmer explained. The Gulf was a historic right whale habitat before whalers hunted the species to the brink of extinction.
This year feels like a “perfect storm” for whale deaths, Wimmer scientist said, as more animals swimming into the Gulf of St Lawrence and “a lot of activities from both boats and fishing gear… all came together, sadly, at the wrong time.”
This sixteenth death has set off a “red flag”, said the scientist, and it’s “a symbol for something really imbalanced in how we use the oceans.”
Despite the concern, scientists who are monitoring the situation aren’t sure what to do about it now as the dwindling right whale population sits “so precariously on the edge.”
“Something very urgent needs to happen”
Government officials, conservation groups, Indigenous people and scientists will gather in Moncton, New Brunswick in early November to try and hammer out a new strategy for preserving the whales, Wimmer said.
“Something absolutely must be done, and now,” she said. “It’s not that we can sit and plan for it for another five or six years.”