2017 has not been a good year for North Atlantic right whales. In fact, it’s been the deadliest on record since whaling days, according to experts.
After a summer where 15 whales were found dead, an incident report has finally revealed the cause of death: of the carcasses studied so far, all died of blunt-force trauma or entanglement, which means ship collisions and fishing nets.
“This makes it pretty much the deadliest year we’ve seen for North Atlantic right whales since the days of whaling,” Tonya Wimmer, director of the Marine Animal Response Society, told the Toronto Star.
These large, slow creatures are mostly found off the Atlantic coast of North America, hence the name, and are one of the most endangered species of large whale. This means we’ve been documenting their decline since they were given protection against whaling in the 1930s.
Once found in groups of hundreds, they're now more likely to be seen in twos or threes. The last estimated population count revealed that from 2010 to 2015 their numbers decreased from 482 to 458. A study last year revealed that of those deaths, 15 percent were due to ship collisions and 85 percent were due to fishing net entanglement.
But this year, in what has been called a “tragic year for a species already teetering on the brink”, an unprecedented number of whales have died, taking their population figures below 450.
According to the incident report about the mass die-off in the Gulf of St Lawrence area this year, 12 right whales were found dead in the Gulf, and three more in open waters. The six that necropsies have been done on all show signs of either trauma conducive with a collision – fractured skulls and signs of internal bleeding – or entanglement.
“Right whales risk spiraling toward extinction if we don’t protect them from deadly fishing gear,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “This has been a tragic year for a species already teetering on the brink. US and Canadian officials need to do everything they can to prevent gear entanglements and the slow, painful deaths they can cause.”
Because these whales are coastal waters dwellers, they are more exposed to, and thus more at risk from, human activity than more open-water creatures – pollution, collisions with ships, fishing net entanglements, and calfs being separated from mothers by shipping traffic are all significant dangers.
Couple that with the fact they are slow breeders – for the 15 killed this year, only five have been born – and the future looks pretty bleak for these magnificent creatures unless we act fast.