Already suffering from a perilous decline, the death of 4 North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this month does not bode well for the species.
Too bad for the whales. These gentle majestic giants rule the seas, but they struggle because we humans do not seem able to stay in our way. We poison them with toxic algae blooms, fill them with plastic, entangle them with fishing gear, and subject them to other assorted atrocities.
Today, in the past three weeks alone, four carcasses of North Atlantic right whales have been found floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada – the sea east of Quebec, west of Nova Scotia and northern New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. For the month of June alone, that represents a 1% drop in the population of the Atlantic’s most endangered large whale species, said Tony LaCasse, spokesperson for the New England Aquarium. The Aquarium oversees the remarkable North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, which tracks the population.
It is estimated that 411 North Atlantic right whales remain on the planet. Measuring up to 55 feet in length, these baleen whales migrate south to the Florida-Georgia border from New England and Canada in early winter to give birth and nurse their young before to return north in the spring.
The Anderson Cabot Center at the Aquarium has identified the four recently killed whales.
Wolverine, 9 year old boy
Found dead on June 4, the 9-year-old was named Wolverine due to three propeller cuts on his tail that were reminiscent of the three blades of Marvel comic book character Wolverine.
In his first five years of life, he survived two minor entanglements and one moderate.
Amy Knowlton, Senior Right Whale Scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the Aquarium, said, “Wolverine has come to be loved by the right whale research community because he has been seen multiple times in all of them. main habitats, from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. and had suffered both a collision with a ship and three entanglements. The right whale community is saddened by the loss of Wolverine, especially at such a young age. ”
Punctuation, female, at least 38 years old
Found dead on June 20, the death of this reproductive grandmother is a major loss for the population. She was named for the dash and comma shaped scars on her head. “All right whale deaths strike hard, but this one is particularly devastating for the population – she was a breeding female – and for the researchers who studied her for nearly 40 years,” notes the Aquarium.
She had her first calf in 1986, with eight calves in total. Daughter # 1601 gave birth to female # 2701, while son # 1981 gave birth to a son of his own, # 3853.
The Aquarium tells the tragic story of the family:
“Like many whales in the population, Punctuation, its calves and calves faced many challenges. The punctuation bore scars from five separate entanglements and two minor vessel strikes. In 2016, the calf of Punctuation # 4681 was struck and killed by a ship Daughter # 1601 and granddaughter # 2701 both suffered severe entanglements which resulted in the death of # 2701 in 2000 and the disappearance of # 1601 in 2001. The Punctuation’s grandson # 3853 was seen in 2011 with deep propeller cuts on his back and is presumed dead. ”
Comet, male, at least 33 years old
Found dead on June 25, the comet is named after a long scar on its right side. Researchers have observed this grandfather since its first sighting in 1985 in Cape Cod Bay – it has been seen every year since and in all major right whale habitats. In 2017, it was first sighted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Aquarium notes:
“Comet was an old favorite. In the 33 years we have followed him, he was often seen in active groups on the surface with other right whales, and paternity tests confirm he had sired a female. Catalog # 2042 in 1990. In 2013, # 2042 made her a grandfather when she gave birth to her first calf. Based on the scars around her peduncle and fluke, we also know that the whale has been involved in three minor tangles in her life. ”
Catalog # 3815, 11 year old girl
Number 3815 did not have a nickname, but the 11-year-old female was just reaching sexual maturity, marking another huge loss to the population. She was the daughter of “Harmony”. Born in 2008, she has been sighted annually, most often in Cape Cod Bay – like Comet, she was first sighted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017. She had become entangled in gear fishing four times. The first three were minor tangles, but in 2017 his encounter was more serious and resulted in significant scarring around his peduncle, notes the Aquarium.
The state of the right whale
The right whales had such a hard time doing this. Named by the whalers who identified them as the “right” whale to kill while hunting, these giant beauties were prized for their oil and abundant baleen, which were used for corsets, buggy whips, and other things. During the whaling frenzy of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, they came close to extinction.
Although hunting is no longer a threat, humans are still responsible for most of the premature deaths of these whales.
“The bulk of right whale deaths have been attributed to anthropomorphic causes, namely collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear,” notes the Aquarium. A recent study found that between 2003 and 2018, of 43 right whales whose cause of death was determined, nearly 90% died from “the direct results of human-induced trauma resulting from entanglement in collisions between lines and ships ”.
For decades, the Bay of Fundy in northeast Maine and western Nova Scotia has been the primary mid- and late-summer feeding destination for much of the population of right whales. But in recent years, with temperatures rising at an alarming rate, copepods (the zooplankton that is the mainstay of their diet) have become scarce. “Wolverine and hundreds of other right whales eventually found copepod aggregations hundreds of miles north in the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” says the Aquarium. “However, the regulations regarding vessel traffic and fishing effort, which were in place for waters south of the Maritime Provinces of Canada and New England, were not in place in this emerging habitat.”
Hopefully it will be a very strong wake-up call to put some protections in place. These incredible creatures may once have been the “right” whale to hunt, but now they are clearly the ones to be saved. Rest in peace, Wolverine, Punctuation, Comet and # 3815 – may your death not be in vain.