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This dead right whale calf had injuries consistent with a vessel strike, including fresh propeller cuts on its back and head, broken ribs, and bruising. Photo: FWC/Tucker Joenz, NOAA Fisheries permit #18786

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Six North Atlantic right whales found dead in a matter of days

Concern for the future of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale have dramatically increased after six were found dead in recent days in the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada.

The first three carcasses were reportedly found drifting between the Magdalen Islands and New Brunswick, on June 6, 18 and 19, with the remaining three whales found since the 19th.The death of these whales has a profound effect on what is already a species that has recently been showing signs of decline, with only around 500 individuals left alive today.  These whales have been reproducing at dangerously low rates for decades and in just a few weeks over 1% of the entire species has been lost. 

In recent years, a shift in distribution of North Atlantic right whales has appeared to result in more of the population migrating to feeding grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the summer months. While the cause of death of these six whales remains under investigation, efforts to reduce the risk of entanglement to the species have largely been focused in US waters in spite of the fact that at least 3 entanglements in snow crab gear have been documented in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since 2015. Similarly, efforts to reduce ship strikes to right whales have been implemented along the US east coast and in Canadian maritime of the Bay of Fundy, but no comparable measures now exist in the busy shipping routes of the St. Lawrence Seaway. 

According to Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of WDC’s North American office, “Including the right whale killed by a ship strike in Cape Cod this past April, we have now lost seven right whales in a year where only five calves were born.  Only 20 years ago, over 500 vaquita swam in the Gulf of California but today only 30 remain because of human impacts.  Where will right whales be in 20 years if we do not make meaningful changes that reduce their threats of ship strikes and entanglements?”   

At least 5,500 right whales, and possibly twice that number, were slaughtered in the western North Atlantic between 1634 and 1951. Once feared extinct, the species was rediscovered in the early 1980s and since then has received considerable scientific attention to try to determine why it was apparently not increasing. 

WDC has been campaigning to save North Atlantic right whales and was instrumental in securing additional protections in US waters including modifications to fishing gear, implementation of a ship strike speed rule, and expansion of federally designated habitat for the species.