North Atlantic Right Whales are officially back in Canadian waters.
Two of these marine mammals were seen last Sunday in the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence by the crew of a departmental plane that was doing aerial observation according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Ocean and Fisheries Canada's 2020 measures are now in place to help protect these whales for the duration of their stay in Canada.
Right whales were once common in temperate waters of the Western Atlantic.
By the early 1890s, commercial whalers had hunted right whales in the Atlantic to the brink of extinction.
Two other species of right whale exist in the world’s oceans: the North Pacific right whale, which is found in the Pacific Ocean, and the southern right whale, which is found in the southern hemisphere.
The North Atlantic right whale is listed as an endangered species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). This North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is a large (up to 17 m) whale, generally black in colour with occasional white belly patches and no dorsal fin.
Right whales can probably live at least 70 years, but data on their average lifespan is limited.
Ear wax can be used to estimate age in right whales after they have died.
Today their main threats are entanglement, vessel strikes,and ocean noise which interrupts their communication.
According to NOAA, only 12 births have been observed in the three calving seasons since 2017, less than one-third the previous average annual birth rate for right whales.
Together with an unprecedented 30 mortalities since 2017 (part of a declared Unusual Mortality Event), accelerates the downward trend that began around 2010, with deaths outpacing births in this population.
An accurate population estimate for the North Atlantic species is yet to be calculated.
The population of North Atlantic right whales in Atlantic Canadian waters was estimated in 2003 to number about 322 animals; however more recent estimates suggest the current population numbers about 400 animals.
Researchers estimate that there were 409 at the end of 2018, with fewer than 100 breeding females left.
Unlike a pre-set (static) season-long closure area, season-long closures will be applied to areas where whales are detected to be aggregating.
If whales are detected in the same area more than once during a 15-day period, a designated area will close until November 15, 2020.
Hydrophones (underwater microphones) and visual sightings from vessels and aircraft will trigger season-long and temporary closures.
If one or more right whales are seen in waters between 10 and 20 fathoms in depth, a temporary closure would be put in place to between 10 and 20 fathoms. Harvesters would then be required to move gear close to shore but would be allowed to continue to fish in the areas less than 10 fathoms deep. In addition, if one or more right whales are seen in waters less than 10 fathoms deep, a temporary closure would apply to the defined area around the sighting, regardless of depth, and would effectively close the area to the shoreline.
Outside the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Bay of Fundy and critical habitats, closures will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
As part of ongoing efforts to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale, the DFO has been working to retrieve lost fishing gear, known as ghost gear, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
A number of actions are current to further increase knowledge about the locations, movement and the actual abundance of whales in Canada, as well as their food sources and factors threatening their health.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada state that they will focus especially on observation of three or more whales, or of a mother with her calf.
The new closure protocol in effect throughout the season has just been implemented in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since May 1, 2020 as the snow crab fishery began.