In the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, six North Atlantic right whales have died this year, forcing Canadian officials to investigate what is killing the animals, the BBC reports today (June 28). At least four whales have died within a span of only one week, raising concerns about whether or not there will be a high number of right whale deaths in 2019.
At least 17 whales died in 2017, and in 2018, no new baby right whales were born. This year, seven baby right whales were spotted, offering hope that the population of the endangered species, which sits precariously around 411, could climb.
The deaths reported this week now suggest otherwise, especially because at least one of the whales that died was a sexually mature female. “The loss of sexually mature females is biologically a major loss to this species that has seen a precipitous population decline over the past several years,” the New England Aquarium says in a statement, according to The New York Times.
Researchers are performing necropsies on four of the six dead whales, and so far the results suggest that some of the whales died from being struck by ships or becoming entangled in fishing gear. That aligns with a study published in Diseases of Aquatic Organisms on June 20, which found that in the deaths of 43 right whales between 2003 and 2018, 90 percent were due to ship strikes or entanglements.
In response to the deaths this year, Canadian officials have passed measures to reduce the speed of ship traffic in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, according to the BBC. The US federal government is also working to change the lobster fishery, mostly in Maine, to preserve the whales by removing vertical lobster trap lines that can ensnare animals, the Associated Press reports. The goal is to have the changes in place by 2021.
Some conservationists say that isn’t soon enough. The whales are declining rapidly in population, so several years could be too late, Erica Fuller, an attorney with Conservation Law Foundation, tells the AP. “We’re dealing with a crisis right now, and we need to treat it like one.”