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Biologists Probe 'Unprecedented' Loss, Mysterious Death Of Endangered Right Whales

Since June 7, at least six North Atlantic right whales have turned up dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Six may not seem like a lot, but the death toll already amounts to more than 1 percent of the endangered population.

Every Right Whale Counts

The dead whales appeared in the area found between Miscou Island in New Brunswick, Magdalen Islands in Quebec, and northern Prince Edward Island.

There had been previous sightings of dead endangered whales in that region, but biologists are concerned that this may be of an altogether different magnitude.

“It’s a bit of an unprecedented event in that we’ve never had an incident like this involving right whales where so many animals have been turning up dead just over the last few weeks,” said marine biologist and Marine Animal Response Society director Tonya Wimmer.

At least two of the whales were females, which meant that the species also lost every baby they would ever bear in their lifetimes. That could be five to 10 animals, Wimmer estimated.

No reason for the deaths or any apparent clue has been provided, with nothing “apparent from the outside,” the biologist continued.

The recent losses are deemed a huge one for the global right whale population, which is currently estimated at 500. They led to a loss of over 1 percent of the species, which would equate to more than 75 million people if it happened to humanity.

In the 1930s, the right whale population fell to only around 50. This year, only five calves were born, lamented Wimmer, making it very important to keep the species from the brink of extinction.

Need For Necropsy

According to species-at-risk biologist Cathy Merriman of Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), they will arrive at no conclusion until a necropsy or autopsy of the carcasses is conducted. She dubbed the forensic test process “incredibly messy” and an “unpleasant” matter to undertake.

And since an endangered species is concerned, the necropsy is deemed very high-priority. Setting a timeline for the task, however, proves tricky, as one of the dead animals would need to be towed to shore in a cooperative weather.

Other challenges include the potential disintegration of the body as it’s towed for over 30 kilometers (19 miles), where the tail can potentially fall off and the body could sink.

No other sightings of dead whales had been reported but the casualties could still grow, the DFO warned.

The Canadian Coast Guard and DFO are already preparing in western Prince Edward Island to bring ashore at least one of the dead whales to begin the process.

Last May, a 79-foot blue whale carcass washed ashore at a beach in Northern California, with collision with an incoming ship considered the cause of death. The female blue whale's carcass was found off Agate Beach in Bolinas, which is situated 13 miles north of San Francisco.

The species is also classified as endangered as it’s constantly threatened by habitat loss, climate change, and other environmental factors. In addition, they are at risk from fishing gears entanglement and collision against ships.

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