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Eighth North Atlantic right whale found dead in Gulf of St. Lawrence

Dr.Pierre-Yves Dumont collects samples from a dead right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June 2017.

The Canadian Press/HO- Marine Animal Response Society

Federal officials have closed a large snow crab fishing area in the the Gulf of St. Lawrence after the death of another North Atlantic right whale, the eighth fatality this summer for the endangered sea mammal.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirmed that a dead right whale was found Wednesday and that later that day another right whale was seen nearby, entangled in fishing lines.

DFO said Thursday that it would close Snow Crab Fishing Area 12 -- a swath of sea east of the coast of New Brunswick that includes the Magdalen Islands and covers most of the Gulf of St. Lawrence -- to protect right whales from getting snagged in crab fishing gear.

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Related: Experts seek place to dissect right whales to determine cause of deaths

"We understand the impact this could have on fishers. However the recent whale mortalities in the area are unprecedented and this closure is an important measure to address the situation," DFO said in a statement that noted that 98 per cent of the allowable catch in Area 12 had already been harvested.

Eight deaths is a worrisome number because North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with only about 500 estimated to still be alive.

"Such devastating news," Marine Animal Response Society, a Halifax-based non-profit conservation group, said on Facebook, calling this year's string of whale casualties a "horrific saga."

The society says it is working with the federal Fisheries Department and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative to conduct a necropsy of the whale, scheduled for Friday morning on Micou Island, NB.

Disentanglements of whales were recently put on hold in Canada and the United States following the death of Joe Howlett, a New Brunswick fisherman and volunteer whale rescuer who died while trying to save a tangled whale on July 10.

On Tuesday, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allowed disentanglement rescues to resume for all large whales, except right whales. Right whales are still excluded because their unpredictable behavior is particularly challenging during rescue attempts," NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Chris Oliver said in a statement.

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The society says the Fisheries Department will monitor the entangled whale and consult with experts on the safest course of action.

North Atlantic right whales migrate seasonally between Florida and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Once hunted to near extinction by commercial whalers, they are now listed in Canada and the U.S. as an endangered species.

Right whales are no longer commercially hunted and the main human threats against them are collisions with ships and entanglements in fishing lines.

Two of the whales whose carcasses were found earlier this summer had signs that they had been hit by large ships but it is not possible to indicate if it caused their death, said a wildlife pathologist who took part in their necropsy.

Preliminary observations on two dead whales, who were towed to Norway, PEI at the end of June, revealed blunt trauma but the carcasses were too decomposed for a conclusive finding, Pierre-Yves Daoust, a professor at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown, said in an interview.

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With files from the Canadian Press

In 2014, the carcasses of three blue whales washed ashore in Newfoundland. Now the bones of one of them are about to be unveiled to the public in a display at the ROM in Toronto
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