Fisheries officials hope to examine dead right whale that washed ashore in N.L.
An endangered North Atlantic right whale that was found lifeless in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is being towed for a post-mortem examination in this file photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Marine Animal Response Society)
Adina Bresge , The Associated Press
Published Thursday, July 27, 2017 8:35AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, July 27, 2017 5:12PM EDT
TROUT RIVER, N.L. -- The latest North Atlantic right whale to be found dead on the East Coast is so decomposed officials say we will likely never know what killed it.
"It's a very flattened whale. It's like a right whale pancake, so it's been drifting and dead for quite a while," Jack Lawson, a research scientist with the Fisheries Department, said in an interview.
Lawson said the whale washed up on a rocky shore near Trout River in western Newfoundland.
Lawson said based on the degree of decay, it's possible the remains belong to one of the eight North Atlantic right whales seen floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in recent weeks.
"There was a whale that was seen in June off the southwest coast of Newfoundland drifting out at sea and this could be that whale."
Fisheries officials are taking photographs and samples of the whale and comparing it the floating corpse spotted in the area last month, Lawson said.
"If it's the same animal that was seen a month ago, that's good," he said. "If this is not a new animal, that means we've seen what we've seen, and hopefully the mortalities for this species in the gulf are all documented and finished."
Officials are using genetic testing to see if they can find a match for the carcass from a catalogue of right whales that has been maintained by scientists.
North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with only about 525 estimated alive.
Last week, another right whale was hauled to New Brunswick's Miscou Island last week in a bid to determine the cause of death, while another right whale was found entangled in fishing gear in the gulf.
Tests performed earlier on two other North Atlantic right whales in Prince Edward Island also showed signs of blunt trauma -- possibly the result of a collision with a boat. Another died as a result of an entanglement in fishing line.
Lawson said the washed-up carcass is probably too decomposed for scientists to glean the circumstances of its death.
Much of the animal's skin has been sloughed off, he said, and some of its organs appear to be missing.
"The more rotted a whale becomes, the harder it is to determine things like that, and this animal is quite decayed," said Lawson. "I suspect the decision will be not to do a necropsy (animal autopsy) on this animal, because ... the inside more or less goes to a smelly soup, as you can imagine.
"It's impressive when you walk on them. It's like a water bed."
Lawson said the remains washed up in a remote location, and there doesn't appear to be a threat to public safety, so officials will probably let nature take its course in disposing of the animal.
Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society said the Gulf of St. Lawrence has recently seen a resurgence of right whales, whose primary feeding grounds have been in the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin.
Ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear are among the greatest man-made threats to right whales' survival, Wimmer said.
The challenge, she said, will be working with the fishing and shipping industries to find ways to protect the animals in the gulf, as has been done in other parts of the Maritimes by rerouting shipping lanes, alerting fishermen to whales' presence and setting speed limits for vessels.
"(It's) about upping the sense of the urgency. It really does need to actually happen quickly," Wimmer said in an interview. "They've got a bit of catching up to do and a bit of a fire under their heels to do it, because as we've seen this year, it can cause major problems, and potentially devastating ones for this extremely small population."
The Fisheries Department closed a snow crab fishing area encompassing most of the southern gulf to protect right whales from the dangers posed by fishing gear.
Disentanglements of right whales were recently put on hold by Ottawa following the death of a whale rescuer in New Brunswick.
-- By Adina Bresge in Halifax