HALIFAX — An animal protection group says the death toll appears to be rising for a small whale species off the East Coast, raising concerns that the animals are falling victim to the same threats facing endangered North Atlantic right whales.
Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society said Monday that since early February about 14 minke whales have been found dead at sea or on beaches in the Maritimes, largely around northern New Brunswick. Others were found in the Bay of Fundy, off Cape Breton and off the eastern tip of P.E.I.
That’s up from the average rate of about 10 deaths a year for minkes, which are not considered at risk or threatened.
“With a species that is quite common, the thought is that they can sustain more deaths, but I think when we start to see numbers that appear to be a little bit higher than normal and clumped in a particular area, it does start to raise bit of a concern,” she said.
“We really need to pay good attention to this because there does seem to be more animal (deaths).”
Wimmer said many of the carcasses found off New Brunswick were badly decomposed or were floating offshore, which means the cause of death couldn’t be determined.
However, Wimmer confirmed that several of the other animals appear to have been killed by ship strikes or entanglements in fishing gear — the main causes of death for right whales.
Wimmer said it’s possible more deaths are being reported because there is increased surveillance of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the wake of about 18 North Atlantic right whale deaths last year in Canadian and U.S. waters.
Some of the minke carcasses were found in the same area where dead right whales were discovered floating last year.
Wimmer said little is known about the common minkes, the smallest of the baleen whales. However, the U.S.-based National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has reported an unusual mortality event with about 33 minke deaths since 2017 and is monitoring the species more closely.
The sleek animals are brownish in colour, have striking white markings on their flippers and can reach about 10 metres in length. It’s thought that there are about 3,000 to 4,000 minkes in the wild.
Last week, a dead minke washed up on Inkerman Beach in northern New Brunswick, but Wimmer says it was badly decomposed and in such an inaccessible spot that they may not be able to get a sample to help determine the cause of death.
She said they’ve also had reports of live minkes being snarled in fishing gear. One apparently freed itself from a fishing weir, while another that was entangled in gear could not be found after an initial sighting.
She said it’s critical that people notify authorities of any dead or entangled minkes as soon as possible, which will allow for quick examinations.
“From a larger perspective in terms of our overall population in our oceans and the sustainability of our industries, if they are deemed to be impacting the animals that’s information we want to make sure we have and act upon,” Wimmer said.
“As much as we can minimize harm to these animals, I think it’s our due diligence as humans who work in their environment to do so.”
The federal government introduced strict new measures that came into force this year to reduce the threat of fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes in the wake of the North Atlantic right whale deaths.
Closures have been ordered in lobster harvesting areas spanning 4,725 square kilometres in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and 738 square kilometres in the Grand Manan area of the Bay of Fundy.
Fisheries officials said last week that there have been no reported deaths of the endangered mammals this season, with the bulk of the lobster and crab fishing season now over.
There are about 111 right whales now in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.