2017 North Atlantic right whale incidents include 15 deaths, plus 9 entanglements

GLOUCESTER, MA – In August, NOAA Fisheries declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) after two separate stranded North Atlantic right whales were sighted in US waters.

Those two, in addition to 11 stranded right whales found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (GSL) between Jun. 6 and Aug. 3, and a 2-year-old female calf found in Cape Cod Bay in April, brought the total to 14 mortalities.

Then, on Sept. 15, a 2-year-old female calf  was stranded off Miscou Island, New Brunswick in the GSL bringing the number of deaths to 15.

Estimates of the North Atlantic right whale population varies but researchers put it at 458 members as of 2015.

By all accounts, the magnitude of the UME is unprecedented.

In October, Canadian investigators released findings in the “Incident Report: North Atlantic Right Whale Mortality Event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

At least two suspected and two probable cases in the GSL right whale deaths were caused by blunt force trauma, likely a ship strike.  At least one death was confirmed as caused by chronic entanglement, and the September calf was entangled, according to the report, although the necropsy had not yet been completed.

Six right whale mortalities’ causes were undetermined, due to the advanced stage of decomposition or the inability to retrieve the carcass.

GSL investigators were able to rule out other factors such as authorized seismic work for oil and gas exploration or major marine development projects or blasting in the time prior to or during the event.  Nor were there indications from the necropsies that biotoxins or infectious diseases caused the event.

Between Jul. 12 and Aug. 28, another five live entanglements, four with snow crab gear, were spotted in the GSL in 2017.  Of those, two were disentangled by the Canadian Campobello Whale Rescue Team and one shed the gear on its own.  Two entangled right whales were not disentangled.

Of the three NA right whales that were found in US waters, the first was a 2-year-old female calf that was found in Cape Cod Bay on Apr. 13.  Upon necropsy, it was found to have died from blunt force trauma, likely a ship strike.  She was identified as the calf of #4094, Mayport, a 7-year-old female  who was last seen entangled in the GSL on Jul. 19. Mayport also had severe injuries on her back and peduncle.

The second US right whale found in August washed ashore on Martha’s Vineyard.  Its advanced state of decomposition did not permit a necropsy, said Michael Asaro, Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Branch Chief at NOAA Fisheries.

The third, also spotted in August, was sighted 100 miles east of Cape Cod on Georges Bank.  Photos from the Coast Guard allowed identification of the whale as a 26-year-old female, #2123.  Using drift analyses of the currents, the investigative team went out on Aug. 14 to tow her back in for a necropsy, but the whale was not found again.

“Entanglement was not apparent from the photographs. And there was no evidence of…

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