Featured Image Credit: World Wildlife Fund
By Eva Gruber
Having been heavily targeted by commercial whaling operations for centuries (from the 11th to the 19th centuries), the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) became the most endangered whale on the planet before whaling was banned internationally in 1937. While this allowed the killing to stop and for the animals to have a chance at recovering, its numbers are still perilously low and the species is still in serious danger.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that only about 350 right whales exist in the Northwest Atlantic, which before whaling was once home to tens of thousands. This existential threat has become especially urgent after the past few weeks, where marine biologists in Canada are puzzling over the appearance of six dead right whales in the Gulf of St Lawrence.
The first dead whale appeared on June 6th, followed by a second on June 19th, and a third on June 20th. Then three more dead right whales appeared from June 20th-23rd. For critically endangered species, even one death is a serious hit to the population. For six adult animals of breeding age to die in the span of a couple of weeks is truly alarming.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Marine Animal Response Society, the Canadian Coast Guard, and marine mammologists and veterinarians are all urgently working together to find out why the whales died. While at first glance, the whales appeared to be healthy, necropsies have revealed that the animals died from blunt force trauma.
The Marine Animal Response Society reports that two of the whales sustained blunt force trauma that caused internal hemorrhaging leading to their deaths. A third died after becoming entangled in fishing rope wrapped around one flipper and inside its mouth. Necropsies of the other whales are awaiting results from testing on the animals’ tissues, and a final report will be released in the next two months.
It is truly a tragedy that these animals, exposed to the presence of humans, were impacted in the most harmful way. Their deaths mark a big leap towards their all-out extinction from the planet, which would be just another extinction in this purely-anthropogenic sixth mass extinction of the planet. Hopefully this event will spur renewed conservation efforts in order to prevent more human-caused deaths of this species.
Possible solutions include mandatory slow ship speeds, or for ships to follow specific paths that are likely to minimize encounters with right whales. Fishing activity needs to be regulated more to minimize exposure to lost and abandoned fishing gear. And by protecting the right whales, other marine animals will benefit as well.