Biologists are investigating whether the 16th North Atlantic right whale found dead this year was one of only five calves born this year to the critically endangered species.
The heavily decomposed nine-metre whale, which is missing its tail, is estimated to be less than two years old, said Brian Sharp, manager of the Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. It was found Monday washed up on a remote island off the coast of Massachusetts, a shipping and fishing area south of Cape Cod.
"The possibility of having lost a calf is very serious. It'll be a double blow if it is a female," Mr. Sharp said.
This latest death comes on the heels of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium's annual meeting in Halifax, where scientists sounded the alarm about the health of the female population and said right whales are two decades away from extinction unless new, immediate action is taken to save the species.
Since June, 12 right whales have died in Canadian waters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements. Four right whales were found dead in the United States, including this latest one, which was discovered on Nashawena Island.
Low birth rates, worse fishing-gear entanglements, and shifting distributions of right whales to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a prime fishing and shipping area, have all contributed to the crisis.
The latest population estimate shows only 451 right whales left in the world. This number does not include the latest 16 deaths, which account for a loss of 3.5 per cent of the population.
Scientists estimate the deaths represent just one-third of actual mortalities, because not all of the carcasses are discovered.
This year's low birth rate – five, compared with an average of 19 born each year from 2000 to 2016, according to New England Aquarium figures – is connected to the health of female right whales. Females are more susceptible to health problems from fishing-gear entanglements, which can impair their ability to feed and acquire sufficient fat stores to reproduce. Only 23 per cent of the right whale population are breeding females.
On Tuesday, biologists with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the U.S. government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spent the day taking bone samples to identify the young whale carcass through genetic testing. Its gender could not be determined. They also looked for signs of blunt force trauma from ship strikes and injuries from a fishing rope entanglement, but the whale was too decomposed to determine a preliminary cause of death.
Moira Brown, a scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute and the New England Aquarium, has spent her life's work trying to save the right whales. "It's disheartening, but we're not going to give up," she said in response to the 16th death. "We just really need to ramp up efforts to reduce all human impact on this species throughout its range, Canada and the U.S."
Scott Kraus, vice-president of the New England Aquarium, said he's optimistic that technology and dynamic management can help save the right whales from extinction.
"I think the snow-crab fishery can figure out a way to fish without ropes in the water," said Dr. Kraus, a presenter at the consortium's meeting and the week-long Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Halifax. "The oceanographic community has been fishing without ropes for a long time. They put stuff on the bottom all the time and retrieve it without any vertical lines. So the technology exists – the question is whether we can make it cost effective enough for fishery."
The alternative, he added, is that the government closes fishing areas that overlap with the right whales. "It's not a great situation, but it might be better than what we had this year. … I think we could have a much more concentrated effort on the part of both countries with really serious engineering and technology approaches," he said.
The consortium convened an international task force to be made up of scientists, government managers and industry professionals to try to save the right whales.
Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Dominic LeBlanc is meeting with fishing and shipping industry representatives, scientists and Indigenous people to discuss the issue next month in Moncton.