The first right whale killed this year in the North Atlantic was in fact a calf just a few months old. The animal was struck twice by ships in the space of a few weeks off the east coast of the United States. This endangered species is however the subject of protection measures, including in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. However, many ships do not respect speed limits, especially in Canadian waters.
According to the results of the necropsy published Monday by the United States Agency for Oceanic and Atmospheric Observation (NOAA), the young male presented marks of “two separate collisions with ships”. He was first struck and lacerated by a boat propeller. This first collision would have seriously injured the animal, which was again struck and lacerated “a few weeks later”. It was these latest injuries from a ship that killed the young right whale, NOAA concludes.
The organization, which constantly monitors this particularly threatened population, also took the opportunity to announce the upcoming publication of a report which will assess the extent of the risks of commercial shipping, but also the effectiveness measures put in place over the years to protect North Atlantic right whales.
Canada itself had to put in place unprecedented measures to protect right whales, after the exceptional deaths of these animals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017. A fishing zone can be closed if a whale is there observed and speed limits have been imposed in some areas. Transport Canada has, however, planned navigation lanes where ships can travel at full speed, particularly in the passage used by right whales to enter the Gulf.
What’s more, according to data available on Tuesday, Transport Canada has already identified a total of 156 ships “operating at speeds above 10 knots” this year in speed limit zones in the Gulf. But “no fines have been imposed and 43 cases are under investigation,” the ministry said.
The Canadian government also added this year a “voluntary speed restriction test zone” in the Cabot Strait, between the northeast tip of Nova Scotia and the southwest tip of the island of Terre- New. But according to an analysis by Oceana Canada, between May 19 and May 25, almost three-quarters of the ships – 72% – did not respect the voluntary slowdown to 10 knots. And it’s a Canadian freighter that would hold the record, at 21.1 knots, according to Oceana Canada.
“Studies have shown that a speed limit of 10 knots, in effect throughout the season in certain areas, reduces the risk of collisions with ships by 86%. Ships need to move more slowly across all whale habitats, “said the environmental group, releasing its analysis earlier in June.
So far in 2020, however, no right whale has been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a region where up to 25% of the entire population can be observed during the summer. This is good news for the government, since the measures to protect the species implemented in Canadian waters are essential to protect access to a vital American market for fishermen, and especially for crab. snows and lobster. There is indeed legislation in the United States that allows the country to “ban imports” of fishery products if the industry jeopardizes marine mammals. Elected Democrats and Republicans have also argued in favor of such an embargo, based on the case of right whales.
The situation of the right whale, which is mainly the victim of collisions with vessels and entanglement in fishing gear, has worsened in recent years, in particular due to exceptional mortality in Canadian waters. In 2017, no less than 17 adult right whales were found dead, including 12 in Canadian waters. A total of 10 right whales died in 2019, including one female that had become entangled at least four times in 15 years.
It may not seem like much, but it must be said that this population, which was practically exterminated by commercial hunting, today would amount to around 400 animals. And NOAA calculates that a total of 31 whales died in three years, in addition to a dozen whales observed entangled or “severely injured”. “This represents around 10% of the population, which implies a significant negative impact for a critically endangered species,” insists the organization.
However, the efforts of the past decades have shown that it is possible to grow the population. There were only 275 individuals in the early 1990s. But thanks to significant protection measures in place in American waters, including modifications to shipping routes, rules for commercial fishing and a monitoring system, the population had reached 500 individuals in 2010.
This year, ten or so calves have been observed along the east coast. This figure is significantly below the average of recent years, with the exception of the 2017-2018 season, during which no calves were born. Over the 2007-2017 period, the annual average was 18 calves, with peaks at 22 in 2013, 22 in 2011 and 39 in 2009.
According to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, which brings together Canadian and American scientists, the rate of reproduction has declined markedly in recent years, so that “the low births each year have eliminated the ability of the population to grow and cope to mortality caused by humans ”.
According to researchers at the New England Aquarium, it is possible in some cases that females who have become entangled in fishing gear may not be able to reproduce, due to the significant repercussions on their physical condition.
“Many females may be unable to accumulate enough fat to successfully become pregnant or to have a full term pregnancy due to possible reductions in food availability and increased effort to find food,” also points out. NARWC. Right whale females usually give birth to their calves between late November and early March, mainly off the coasts of the states of Georgia and Florida.