Remains of endangered North Atlantic whale found off N.S. southwestern shore

The "gruesome discovery" of the remains of a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale is another blow to the species, a global environmental advocacy group says.

Oceana campaign director Kim Elmslie said the organization was made aware Tuesday that an adult right whale’s tail and part of its lower body were spotted earlier this month off the southwestern coast of Nova Scotia.

The remains haven’t yet been recovered, and no cause of death has been determined.

"This is just another devastating loss for the species," Elmslie said in an interview Wednesday, adding that North Atlantic right whales suffered at least five reported deaths this past winter.

Oceana says pictures of the right whale’s remains were documented by a Transport Canada aerial surveillance team 140 kilometres off the province's southwest coast. The department was not available for comment Wednesday.

Elmslie said the group is hopeful that the whale's remains will be recovered so scientists can learn how it died. But she is worried because she's been told "there's been a lot of predation on it from sharks."

Also this month, a North Atlantic right whale was spotted entangled in fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, northeast of New Brunswick's Acadian Peninsula, in what was the first sighting of a right whale in Canadian waters this season. The federal Fisheries Department said the adult female known as Shelagh was seen on May 13 dragging gear that appeared to be caught in her mouth.

"Unfortunately, they haven't seen her again .... We haven't heard anything since she was seen with the equipment in her mouth," Elmslie said.

Elmslie said Shelagh's entanglement was considered severe, meaning it's unlikely the animal will be able to remove it without help. The potential loss of a female whale would be devastating for the health of the species, she said.

"Losing breeding females … that's the future of population."

It's not possible to know the sex of the whale from the remains spotted off the Nova Scotia coast, Elmslie said.

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered large whale species in the world, with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration saying there are about 360 whales in existence. The federal agency estimates that 85 per cent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.

On April 9, a right whale was spotted entangled in rope about 80 kilometres south of Rhode Island, but it's unclear what happened to that animal or if it is the same whale spotted last week in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. NOAA confirmed the whale had rope coming out of both sides of its mouth and was far from shore.

Last October, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium reported that the population appeared to be stabilizing after years of discouraging declines. But the international team of marine scientists also said the data showed the number of human-caused injuries continued to rise.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2024.

Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press