Entangled North Atlantic right whale seen off Acadia

(Halifax) An endangered North Atlantic right whale has been spotted entangled in fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, northeast of New Brunswick’s Acadian Peninsula.

This sighting northwest of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, marks the first time that a right whale has been seen in Canadian waters this season, the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in a press release published Monday .

The ministry says a team participating in a routine surveillance flight spotted the adult female, known as Shelagh, dragging a device that appeared to be stuck in her mouth.

Members of the federal Marine Mammal Response Program will attempt to remove the gear if weather and sea conditions permit, but the whale was far offshore when last seen, the department said.

“It was demoralizing to learn that the first right whale of the season spotted in Canadian waters was also our first entanglement,” Sheryl Fink, a spokesperson for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in a statement.

“The fact that there are likely fewer than 70 breeding females of this species remaining makes this entanglement particularly devastating. We hope that the disentanglement efforts will be carried out safely and will be successful. »

Officials report that it is still unclear what type of fishing gear is involved or where it came from.

An endangered species

Oceana, an international environmental organization, released a statement saying the entanglement could have been avoided if proper regulations had been in place in Canada and the United States.

“While we wait to see if Shelagh can be disentangled, this whale becomes the latest example of the ongoing threat to this species due to a complete lack of protection,” said Gib Brogan, campaign director of Oceana in the United States.

“While we don’t yet know the origin of the rope hanging from this whale’s mouth, we do know that where there is rope, there is danger for North Atlantic right whales. The question is whether the US and Canadian governments will act in time to save this species or will they knowingly watch it disappear. »

So far this season, four right whales have died in U.S. waters, three of them from ship strikes.

The North Atlantic right whale remains one of the most endangered large whale species in the world.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there are approximately 360 whales of this species remaining. The federal agency estimates that 85% of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.

On April 9, a right whale was seen entangled in a rope about 50 miles south of Rhode Island, but it remains unclear what happened to the animal or if it is the same whale seen last night. last week in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. NOAA confirmed the whale had a rope coming out of both sides of its mouth and was far from shore.

More protection

Last October, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium reported that the population appeared to be stabilizing after years of discouraging decline. But the international team of marine scientists also said data showed the number of human-caused injuries continued to rise.

For years, scientists and researchers have been trying to convince the fishing industry to start using ropeless fishing gear to reduce entanglements.

While traditional lobster and crab traps are dropped to the ocean floor and then retrieved by pulling long ropes suspended from buoys, ropeless gear does not use so-called running lines or buoys. . The traps are found using an electronic guidance device – a sort of virtual buoy – and they are retrieved using remotely inflated spools of rope or lifting bags.

Kim Elmslie, campaign director for Oceana Canada, said Canada’s Fisheries Department needs to accelerate the transition to ropeless equipment.

“This innovative technology can allow a thriving fishing industry to continue without putting critically endangered whales at risk of entanglement,” she said. Each entanglement has a major impact on this already fragile population. »

Right whales migrate each year from their calving grounds off Florida and Georgia to their feeding grounds off New England and the east coast of Canada. The population increased by 150 individuals between 2001 and 2011, but stabilized, then a sharp decline began in 2017 when 12 whales died in Canadian waters and five more in American waters.

Later that year, the Canadian government introduced a series of measures to improve whale protection. These measures, which are still in effect, included increased aerial surveillance, restrictions on shipping lanes, slower speed limits for vessels, temporary fishing zone closures and real-time monitoring using underwater listening devices.

As the Atlantic Ocean has warmed, whales have changed their migration patterns. Instead of heading to their traditional summer feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy, increasing numbers of whales are heading further north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they encounter more shipping traffic and fishing grounds. very busy.

Between 2017 and 2023, ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear were the leading cause of death and serious injury to right whales.

The right whale population is thought to have peaked at around 21,000 individuals before whaling significantly reduced their numbers. By the 1920s, fewer than 100 remained. After right whale hunting was banned in 1935, the population increased to 483 individuals in 2010.

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