North Atlantic Right Whales Are Dying in Horrific Ways

Six individuals—more than 1 percent of the population—were found dead just this month, the latest entries in a troubling pattern.

A North Atlantic right whale
A North Atlantic right whale (Reuters)

Updated at 11:59 p.m. ET on June 27, 2019

She was called Punctuation, after the small scars on her head that looked like commas and dashes. She was a North Atlantic right whale, one of an estimated 411 left in the world. She was one of just 100 reproductively active females left. She was mother to at least eight calves, and a grandmother to at least two grand-calves. She was about 40 years old when her body was found floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on June 20, 2019. Preliminary results from a necropsy suggest that she likely died after being hit by a ship.

It had been a galling month for the many people who care about North Atlantic right whales. Wolverine, a 9-year-old male named after the three propeller scars on his tail, was found dead in the same waters on June 4. The body of Comet, a 34-year-old grandfather named after the long scar on his flank, was discovered dead on Tuesday night, alongside an unnamed 11-year-old female, who was just about to become sexually mature. A fifth whale, an unnamed 16-year-old female found near Anticosti Island, in Quebec, was confirmed dead yesterday. A sixth was spotted off the Gaspé Peninsula, also in Quebec, on a surveillance flight today. That’s more than 1 percent of the estimated total population, dead in less than a month.

“Honestly, I don’t have the words,” says Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation North America, who has studied these animals since 1990. “It’s devastating. There’s now more people working on right whales than there are right whales left.”

How much death can a species tolerate? Researchers have estimated the number of North Atlantic right whales that could be killed every year while still maintaining a stable population. “That number is 0.9,” says Sarah Sharp, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Six have died this month alone. “The species cannot sustain these kinds of losses. We’re seriously worried that extinction is in the all-too-near future.”

Aside from Punctuation, it’s still unclear why the other five whales died. Wolverine’s necropsy was inconclusive, and the other four have yet to be examined. Natural causes are unlikely: None of these individuals were anywhere close to the species’ estimated life span of 80 to 100 years. And just last week, Sharp and her colleagues published a paper that analyzed the deaths of 70 North Atlantic right whales since 2003. In the 43 cases where the team could determine a cause of death, 38 were due to just two causes—ship strikes, and entanglements.

Of Punctuation’s two known grandchildren, one was killed by a fishing line in 2000, and the other was last seen in 2011 with deep propeller cuts in his back. Another of her calves was killed by a ship in 2016. She herself had survived five separate entanglements and two ship strikes, before one more ended her life.

Ship strikes. Entanglements. There is something almost euphemistic about these terms that belies the horror of the wounds they inflict. Six of the whales Sharp studied had their skulls fractured by incoming ships. Three had their spines broken. Six were lacerated by propellers. One calf had its entire tail amputated. One whale survived her run-in with a propeller, but 14 years later, when she was pregnant, the presence of the fetus caused her scars to split, leading to a fatal infection.

Entanglements are no better. Over time, ropes slowly eat into flippers, tails, heads, and even the baleen plates inside the whales’ mouths. In one case, a line lacerated a whale’s blowhole, likely affecting its breathing or preventing it from keeping water out while it dove. Some of these deaths are painful. Others are painful and long. “This isn’t just a conservation issue. It’s an animal-welfare issue,” Sharp says. “Whales are out of sight, out of mind, and people aren’t seeing them suffer. It’s not a cat or dog walking down the street with these horrible injuries. But it’s important for people to understand how bad this is.”

Slow, docile, and full of oily blubber, North Atlantic right whales made great targets for whalers, who hunted them to near-extinction by the early 20th century. After hunting was banned in 1937, the population stabilized, but never truly recovered. After a brief uptick, the whale population has started to decline again since 2010, perhaps because the whales have changed their behavior.

The whales used to regularly visit Cape Cod Bay in the early spring, before migrating up the Eastern Seaboard to the Bay of Fundy. Their consistent movements made it easier for regulators to protect them, by controlling shipping lanes or forcing fisheries to close at certain times. But in recent years, warming temperatures have depleted their food sources, forcing them to head further north into dangerous waters where they enjoy no protections.

An unprecedented 17 individuals died in 2017, and only five calves were born. Last year brought three more deaths, and no calves—a deeply worrying trend. But this winter, seven new calves were seen. “It felt like we could breathe for a minute, like maybe things were going to turn around,” Asmutis-Silvia says. But the events of recent weeks have largely quenched that hope. “The absolute hardest part of all this is that these deaths are preventable.”

About a decade ago, the U.S. instigated a 10-knot speed limit in places where (and at times when) the whales are seen—a measure that led to fewer collisions and less severe injuries. When the whales started moving into Canadian waters, Transport Canada initially tried to set up more dynamic restrictions, based on sightings from planes. After the fifth body was found, it immediately implemented a stricter 10-knot limit for vessels of 65 feet (20 meters) or longer in two shipping lanes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. That ban will be enforced by increased monitoring, and offenses will be subject to a $25,000 fine. “It’s been a hard lesson to learn,” Asmutis-Silvia says.

Preventing entanglements is harder, she adds. The main threat comes from the vertical ropes that connect lobster and snow crab traps on the seafloor to floating buoys on the surface. Earlier this year, the Canadian government banned lobster and crab fishing in a “static zone” where most right whales were seen last year, and was ready to set temporary bans in a wider “dynamic zone” if any individual was seen. But some of this year’s five dead individuals were found outside these areas.

Speaking at a press conference today, Adam Burns of Fisheries and Oceans Canada said that the snow crab fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence will close this Sunday, and the use of fixed gear will decrease significantly. In the long term, several companies and research groups are working on “ropeless gear” that could, for example, allow fisheries to summon lines to the surface only when they are fishing. “That would solve 90 percent of the entanglement problem,” Asmutis-Silvia says.

Matthew Hardy of Fisheries and Oceans Canada added that the agency is continuing its intense surveillance work to find out where exactly the whales are. So far, an estimated third of the world’s population has been seen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but their exact whereabouts seem to shift from year to year. That worries Asmutis-Silvia. “Where are the others?” she asks. “We might be looking at a raging fire in Canada, but I’m concerned about where we don’t know there’s a problem.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s unusual to not know where a lot of them are,” Sharp says, “and hopefully it means they’re far offshore and not near shipping lanes and fishing gear. But we do need to know where they are to implement proper protection.”