A dead North Atlantic right whale spotted Tuesday drifting off Quebec’s Gaspé coast is known to researchers as Wolverine.
“The animal does have a history,” confirmed Tonya Wimmer, executive director of the Halifax-based Marine Animal Response Society (MARS). “It’s been spotted in Canadian waters before. It is an animal that’s known to researchers throughout its range on the eastern seaboard in Canada and the U.S.”
Wolverine has also been seen in the Bay of Fundy.
The whale is being towed to northern New Brunswick. There, researchers can conduct a necropsy – a post-mortem examination – in hopes of determining the cause of death.
The U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spotted the whale Tuesday and reported it to Canadian officials. Searchers caught up with the nine-year-old male late Wednesday and are towing it to a beach on Miscou Island in New Brunswick so that a team of specialists can examine it.
Researchers identified Wolverine by scars on its tailstock They resembled gashes from the blades on the hands of the fictional Marvel Comics and film character. The scars are thought to have been from contact with a ship’s propeller when the whale was much younger.
Researchers also know Wolverine to have survived at least three gear entanglements.
“It does seem to be the animals are using (the Gulf of St. Lawrence) more than they used to."
- Tonya Wimmer, executive director, Marine Animal Response Society
Wimmer was reached by phone Thursday while en route to the necropsy site. She hoped to be there in time to help guide the whale to shore.
Given the size of the ocean, Wimmer does not find it surprising that it took until late Wednesday to locate the whale after DFO received information from NOAA Tuesday. She noted NOAA was conducting aerial surveys on the right whales and its images were so sharp that the dead whale was easily identified by its distinct scars.
Wimmer said aerial surveys have observed as many as 25 right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year, but she did not know whether that is 25 individual whales, or some whales counted more than once during daily surveys.
“It does seem to be the animals are using (the Gulf of St. Lawrence) more than they used to, but this survey effort also was pretty minimal prior to 2014, 2015,” she commented. She suggested an abundance of food the whales like is what’s attracting them.
Wolverine is the first confirmed death of a North Atlantic right whale in the Gulf since 2017 when there was an unprecedented toll of 12 members of the critically endangered species. There is believed to be less than 450 still in existence.
Many of the 2017 deaths were attributed to ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements. Some of the necropsies were performed at Phee Shore in Norway, P.E.I., as well as at the Miscou Island location.
Since the 2017 deaths, the federal government has imposed strict measures to help protect the whales. These include speed limits for ships and zones being closed to fixed-gear fishing when whales are in the area and restrictions on the amount of rope attached to fishing gear.
Veterinary teams from P.E.I. and Quebec, as well as Fisheries and Oceans personnel were also being dispatched to assist with the necropsy which Wimmer expects will get underway Friday.
Additional grid closures imposed
There have been additional grid closures imposed this week by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for the protection of the whales.
The department reports the whale was observed in grid GW42, which has been closed to non-tended fishing gear since May 17. The department indicates the exact date and location, and cause, of the whale’s death, are unknown.
Carter Hutt, president of the P.E.I. Snow Crab Fishermen’s Association says the closures are further north than where most of the Island’s fleet fishes, so he is not anticipating the closures will have any impact on this year.
Most of the fleet, he said, is done or in the process of finishing up.
“Everybody agrees the whales need to be protected, and we will do what we can,” Hutt said.
He feels snow crab fishermen who could, should have been allowed to set their gear earlier this year, instead of waiting for all areas to be ice-free. This could further reduce the likelihood of entanglements as those fishermen might have been off the water before the whales even arrived.
Hutt said he’s never seen a right whale while fishing. He knows, through literature, that the species don’t breach the surface like other whales might, but swim along the surface to feed. And when they exhale, the water escapes their blowhole in a “v-like fashion.”