At least they were until last month. That’s when six of those large marine mammals were found floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Dead.
It’s the largest known die-off in decades. What’s more, it represents more than one per cent of the total population of the endangered species.
Necropsies performed on three of the carcasses on a P.E.I. beach last week noted evidence of blunt trauma, consistent with collisions with ships, with two of the whales, and fishing gear entanglement for the other.
Those are just preliminary results. It could be that ship strikes occurred after the whales died, but it’s unlikely a whale became entangled in fishing gear after it died.
Human activity, such as shipping and fishing, have long being identified as major contributing factors in the deaths of right whales in the decades since harvesting of the gentle giants ended.
But it’s hard to outright blame a ship; or a fishing net. We all depend on ships for cargo and fishermen for food.
But we can’t just throw our hands up and say, ‘poor, helpless whale.’
This species is in serious trouble. It needs our protection.
It seems much is known about the right whale. They are relatively slow-moving – average speed is around 10 kilometres per hour - so they’re relatively easy to track. Each of those whales has unique characteristics that enable experts to tell them apart. Some have satellite tags attached.
Affixing tags to more of the whales, and relying on the tags for even more information could become an important piece of protection. If experts know where the whales are, authorities can caution ships to reduce their speed. The important thing is to reduce the likelihood of a collision, because there’s no veterinary hospital in the world capable of receiving and treating an injured whale. If the satellite data suggests a whale is behaving abnormally, a rescue crew might be able to arrive in time to free the animal from fishing gear.
It’s a mater of being in the right place at the right time for the right whale, and that was the case this week when the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration alerted Canadian authorities of a North Atlantic right whale in trouble off New Brunswick’s east coast. Help arrived in time and freed the whale from a fishing gear entanglement. That’s a piece of good news for a species in peril.
But it is a small victory. The right whales’ natural habitat is still on a collision course with human activity.
We can’t expect the whales to alter their course, so it’s up to us humans to make some changes to our behavior.