Eight North Atlantic right whales have died since early June, a devastating blow to a population that numbers roughly 500. This disaster has been compounded by the tragic death of Joe Howlett, a founding member of the Campobello [New Brunswick] Whale Rescue Team, who was struck by a right whale that he had just released from fishing gear.
Necropsies are under way on the recent deaths; three of the whales appear to have been hit by ships, while at least one died due to drowning in snow crab gear. A 2016 paper in Frontiers in Marine Science noted that ship collisions and fishing gear entanglements are killing an increasing number of right whales. A staggering 83 percent of North Atlantic right whales display scars or carry ropes indicative of past entanglements.
The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed the snow crab season early and suspended disentanglement efforts for right whales, pending investigation of the circumstances of Howlett’s death. The US National Marine Fisheries Service also suspended large whale disentanglement efforts. It is hoped that lessons about the recent mortalities can be learned in time to protect the remaining right whales. Another die-off of this magnitude would be catastrophic, especially as calving rates are down by almost 40 percent since 2010.