Sperm whale found dead in Nova Scotia had swallowed 150 kg of fishing gear

HALIFAX — A sperm whale that washed ashore this month in Nova Scotia starved to death after consuming 150 kilograms of fishing gear, the Marine Animal Response Society said Friday.

The executive director of the conservation group said the 14-metre-long whale weighing more than 28 tonnes was spotted looking unwell off a rocky beach on the west side of Cape Breton on Nov. 4.

“Seeing the sperm whale so close to shore and so thin are some really concerning signs,” Tonya Wimmer said in an interview Friday.

She said the following day it was reported that the whale appeared to have died near the shore in Craigmore, near Judique in Cape Breton.

The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative and members of the provincial Natural Resources and Renewables Department performed a necropsy on Nov. 10 and found the whale's stomach contained 150 kilograms of fishing gear such as packaging, ropes, nets and gloves.

“We found a bit of gear, and then it kept going and it kept going. We realized the full extent of what we were seeing was horrific,” Wimmer said.

Sperm whales eat by diving deep down to feed on squid and fish. They use their mouths like a vacuum and take in whatever is on the ocean floor, Wimmer said. This means they are at risk of consuming all kinds of unnatural objects that have sunk.

Because of how they eat, Wimmer said it's not uncommon to see sperm whales with plastic and gear in their stomach. She said, however, that the amount of debris extracted from the whale exceeds anything she's seen before.

If a whale's stomach is filled with gear, she said it interferes with the normal consumption of food and causes blockages so food can't be consumed and digested properly. This can lead to starvation.

“This would have been an incredibly horrific way, and a traumatic way for this animal to slowly die,” she said.

It's unclear where the gear came from or what it was used for, Wimmer said, but the grim finding is a reminder of how deadly discarded equipment and garbage can be for marine mammals.

“It’s not a blame game. It’s not any particular industry or person that would have done this, but collectively we have to take responsibility," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press