The critically endangered North Atlantic right whale population was dealt a devastating blow in 2017. Seventeen right whale mortalities were documented by teams in the US and Canada. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has led necropsy efforts for all of the five 2017 US cases in partnership with NOAA and stranding agencies along the East Coast.
Unfortunately, this devastating mortality trend is continuing.
The first North Atlantic right whale mortality of 2018 was discovered off the coast of Virginia this week. The US Coast Guard, NOAA, Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center and others mounted an effort to re-locate the whale, recover the carcass, and tow the whale to shore for necropsy (animal autopsy). Three of IFAW’s marine mammal experts, Misty Niemeyer, Kristy Volker and veterinarian Sarah Sharp, deployed to Virginia to assist NOAA, Virginia Aquarium and partners with the necropsy.
The whale, an immature female approximately 39 feet in length, appears to have been wrapped in line prior to her death. The team determined, based on this evidence, the whale was alive and swimming when it encountered the line. Preliminary observations also suggest the cause of death to be due to entanglement.1
“The last 10 months have been devastating for the North Atlantic right whale population. We had hoped that in 2018 we would see a slowing of the decline, but with the first dead North Atlantic right whale discovered off the coast of Virginia this week we now know that is not the case. Three members of our team deployed to be part of the multi-agency necropsy effort to determine the cause of death and circumstances related to this event,” Brian Sharp, Program Manager, International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“With the news of yet another dead North Atlantic right whale, we are now at a near crisis point for this endangered species. We, collectively, need to take immediate action to protect the future of the North Atlantic right whale. Whales play an integral role in the health of our oceans, which directly impacts the health of the planet,” Misty Niemeyer, Necropsy Coordinator, International Fund for Animal Welfare.
North Atlantic right whale information:
- Female North Atlantic right whales can take nearly 10 years to reach reproductive maturity.2 This slow reproductive rate means recovery of the population will take decades, not years if this decline can be stopped.
- No calves were reported born to first-time mothers. Only five mom and calf pairs were spotted in 2017.2
- There were 17 North Atlantic right whales mortalities documented in 2017. Due to decomposition the case of one of the dead whales is pending genetic analysis to see if it matches an earlier mortality. It should be noted that since this is the reported number of cases it represents the minimum number of mortalities.
- In the Canadian cases in which the cause of death could be determined, six of the dead whales were the result of human-causes, entanglement or vessel strike.3 In the US cases one mortality was consistent with vessel strike and the remaining four are pending sample analysis or could not be determined due to decomposition. Two cases involved pre-mortem entanglements, however final cause of death will be confirmed once pending analysis is completed.
- The Canadian government has committed to reducing speed limits for vessels and modifying fishing practices in an attempt to prevent deadly interactions.
1 NOAA Fisheries GARFO Press Release, https://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/mediacenter/2018/01/28_january_28_update.html
2 Pettis, H.M. et al. 2017. North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium annual report card. Report to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, October 2017 https://www.narwc.org/uploads/1/1/6/6/116623219/2017_report_cardfinal.pdf
3 Daoust, P.-Y., Couture, E.L., Wimmer, T., and Bourque, L. 2017. Incident Report: North Atlantic Right Whale Mortality Event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2017. Collaborative Report Produced by: Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, Marine Animal Response Society, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 256 pp. https://www.cwhc-rcsf.ca/right_whales.php