The 2017 field season has not started out quite as we had hoped. Preparing for a given field season starts in the late autumn and winter months with funding proposals and research permit requests. By spring, once we have a sense of the funding situation, we spend a considerable amount of time sorting out schedules and logistics for personnel and boats. This season, with funding in hand at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life from Irving Oil (Saint John, New Brunswick (NB)) and the Island Foundation (Marion, MA) and support from the Habitat Stewardship Program of Environment Climate Change Canada to our research partners Canadian Whale Institute (Wilson’s Beach, NB) and Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia), we had a plan in place to carry out our 37th Bay of Fundy field season on our 30-foot vessel, R/V Nereid, for two months – late July to late September – and to conduct three two-week-long research cruises in the Gulf of St. Lawrence starting in late June on the M/V Shelagh. But as they say about best-laid plans…
On June 6, a right whale carcass was found in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence between the Magdalen Islands, Quebec, and Shippagan, NB. Hearing about any right whale carcass is a concern, but then, starting on June 19, in a situation that is continuing to evolve, at least nine additional right whale carcasses have been found in that same region. And last week, four carcasses were found on the western shores of Newfoundland in a much decomposed state, but at least two of them are additional to the 10 previously found. In July, a multi-organizational effort was formed with veterinarian pathologists from across Canada and the United States, and Canadian whale response groups and their volunteers. Six of the right whale carcasses have been necropsied. Preliminary findings indicate three whales had evidence of blunt force trauma as a result of vessel strikes and another was entangled in snow crab gear. On top of all of these mortalities, four live right whales were found entangled in snow crab gear between July 5 and July 19. Two were successfully disentangled, but not without a tragic loss. On July 10, during his second disentanglement operation in five days, our colleague Joe Howlett was accidentally struck by the whale and died instantly from his injuries. Joe was the captain of the M/V Shelagh and an extremely experienced whale disentanglement responder. He was a very dear friend to our team and all those who had ever sailed with him on the Shelagh. Joe was truly loved by all who knew him.
After this tragedy, our team is slowly working through the grief and trying to forge ahead with the field season in the void left by Joe’s death. The Nereid team started surveys on July 26 and has been out in the Bay of Fundy on five days and documented more than 30 individual right whales. A second team is conducting a two-week survey effort in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where, as of the end of July, live right whales were still being seen during aerial surveys by colleagues from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (Woods Hole, MA). On its first day out on August 2, the Shelagh team documented 23 individual right whales and is waiting for the winds to subside to get back out to look for more.
The right whale is a species that has endured a tremendous amount of harm from human activities, starting with intentional whaling, banned in 1935, and now unintentional impacts from fishing gear and vessel strikes. We will continue to focus our efforts on monitoring this population and work with marine industries and government managers to help to find solutions for preventing these human-induced impacts from occurring. We will send out updates as we can about the field efforts and the whales.