The Quoddy Tides

Eastport, Maine

2006 July 28

Right whale dead; ship strike suspected

by Chessie Johnson

A rare right whale, found dead just east of Grand Manan Island, was towed to Campobello Island and landed on Galley Beach at Head Harbour late Monday night, July 24, so that researchers could study it. The whale, estimated to be a year old or younger, had been hit by a large ship and had at least 13 propeller cuts on its body from the collision. Assisting at the scene on Campobello were representatives of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as the local RCMP officer.

The female calf was 31 feet long and weighed about eight tons. At birth, right whales weigh about one ton and are usually weaned at about one year of age. Efforts were under way to determine if the whale had been spotted before in the annual whale census done by researchers, who use the distinct pattern of markings on the head to identify individual whales.

The whale was first spotted floating off the east coast of Grand Manan Island by a whale-watch tour operated by Quoddy Link Marine of St. Andrews. A small, inflatable boat run by George Morrison towed it a short distance and then Mac Greene of the New Brunswick whale rescue team towed it the rest of the way to Campobello with his tour boat from Island Cruises.

Amy Knowlton of the right whale study team at the New England Aquarium was in the area with her staff preparing for the annual census of whales in the region. She was involved with the necropsy of the whale, similar to an autopsy performed on a human being, which was being led by Bill McLellan of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Among other information they hope to find out is whether the whale survived the collision with the ship or died immediately. Inspection of the internal organs, which would likely show evidence of infection if the animal survived for some time, is expected to provide a definitive answer. Other scientists involved in studying the animal are from the Atlantic Veterinary College and Allied Whale, the marine stranding response program of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Among the more esoteric areas of study, whale lice are being collected for study by Vicki Roundtree, who, at her University of Utah lab, specializes in the three species of lice endemic to whales.

Several of the academic researchers expressed concern about the killing of the baby whale. Right whales are among the most endangered species in the world, with only 300 to 400 estimated to be left, and the loss of a potential breeding female could be seriously damaging to attempts to support the population. Also, questions were raised because no ship reported the collision. "This would not have gone unnoticed on board the vessel," explained one of the researchers. "No matter how large the ship, if you collide with a nine-ton whale, you know you've hit something significant." She went on to say that a finback whale had been speared on the bow of a ship several years back. "If the LNG terminal is opened, there will be more traffic, and more traffic inevitably means more of this," referring to the killing of the whale, the researcher said. "This is an incredibly rare animal, and we can't afford to lose them this way."

It was expected that, after the samples had been taken from the whale, the skeleton would be towed to Grand Manan to be placed in the museum there.

Canada has adopted a right whale recovery plan that, among other goals, aims to reduce incidental deaths caused by ship strikes and entanglements with fishing gear. The country has rerouted shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy to reduce the risk of ship strikes.

In the U.S., the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is proposing regulations to reduce the risk of collisions between right whales and ocean-going vessels. The rule proposes a vessel speed restriction of 10 knots or less during certain times along the U.S. east coast. Speed restrictions would apply to vessels that are 65 feet in length or greater, except federal agency vessels. NMFS is seeking comments on the regulations until August 25.

The North Atlantic right whale's range includes winter calving and nursery areas in coastal waters off the southeastern U.S., and summer feeding grounds in New England waters and north to the Bay of Fundy and Scotian shelf.


© 2006 The Quoddy Tides
Eastport, Maine
Article republished on Save Passamaquoddy Bay website with permission.