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Canada investigating surge in Atlantic coast right whale deaths

Something strange is going on in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, from the Northeastern United States on up to Canada’s eastern Atlantic. Far too many of our whales, including the endangered Northern right whale, are turning up dead.

According to CTV News Canada, a DFO official said that at least five right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this month, with four of them found in the past week near Quebec’s Magdalen Islands.

Biologist Cathy Merriman says the deaths account for a loss of one percent of the right whale population worldwide, estimated to be about 500. The Northern right whale is listed as an endangered species in Canada and is protected under the Canadian Species at Risk Act and the US Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The worldwide population of North Atlantic right whales is estimated to be 500.
The worldwide population of North Atlantic right whales is estimated to be 500.

“It has potential quite negative implications for the ability of that population to recover,” Merriman said in an interview with CTV News on Saturday. “There’s a lot of work and a lot of effort needed to try and understand what is happening, and hopefully it’s something that can be prevented, but we really just know nothing right now.”

The fisheries department has sent out aerial surveillance planes and the Canadian Coast Guard to locate, tag and take samples of the whale carcasses for study. Satellite tags were placed on two of the dead whales so that investigators could track their movement in the water.

A large number of samples were taken from one of the whale carcasses, including blubber, skin, fecal matter and muscle tissues. The possibility of towing one of the carcasses into shore for necropsy is being considered because of the need to figure out what is going on with the mammals.

In related news, two young humpback whales washed up on Cape Cod Island just a day or so apart this week. According to Cape Cod Times, a juvenile humpback whale was found on Tuesday on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.

A team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) was dispatched to examine and hopefully do a necropsy on the whale when they received a call of another dead humpback whale. IFAW spokeswoman Melanie Mahoney said in an email, “While out examining the stranded humpback whale, our team received a report of another stranded dead whale on Monomoy, The team was able to hike out and assess the animal. It was found to be alive and in poor condition.”

The 27-foot-long whale was in such poor condition it had to be euthanized. A full necropsy was performed and there were ‘no recent signs of entanglement, vessel strike or other major wounds,” according to the report. But scientists did find large amounts of the parasitic nematode Crassicauda species.

The finding of what has been described as a species-specific nematode in the humpback whale is rather unusual, based on a study that appeared in the journal Marine Mammal Science on February 7, 2016. The study showed that Crassicauda sp. was confirmed to be a species-specific parasite among kogiids infecting only K. breviceps (pygmy sperm whales).

In April this year, Digital Journal reported that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Fisheries (NOAA) has declared an “Unusual Mortality Event,” based on the higher-than-normal number of deaths and strandings of humpback whales seen along the Atlantic coast recently.

Since the beginning of 2016, 46 whales have washed up along the East Coast of the United States according to NOAA. Two more have just been added. Far too many whales are being found dead along the Atlantic Coast of Canada and the U.S., and that is very worrisome.

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