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More research is needed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to determine if it has become an emerging habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales, experts said Friday after the badly decomposed remains of a seventh whale were found floating in roughly the same area as six others.
The overturned male was seen bobbing on the surface of the water north of the Magdalen Islands late Wednesday, but it was not yet clear what may have caused this latest death.
It follows the deaths of two female and four male North Atlantic right whales found last month.
Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society said scientists need to intensify efforts to find out if the lumbering giants are making the Gulf one of their primary feeding grounds in a shift away from their traditional habitats in the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin.
"All of that together is saying there needs to be a very strong focus on the Gulf to really look at what's going on and potentially try to figure out where they are and then what can be done to protect them," she said.
"It's a really important animal to look at in the realm of this larger picture of incidents that have been happening in that southern Gulf of St. Lawrence area."
Wimmer is hoping Fisheries officials will arrange to do necropsies, or animal autopsies, on the latest dead whale as well as a right whale named Panama that has washed ashore on the Magdalen Islands to determine what killed them.
Fisheries spokeswoman Krista Petersen said she didn't know if a decision had been made about the examinations.
Three of the other six North Atlantic right whales were necropsied after being hauled on shore in P.E.I. late last month. Scientists say inspections suggest two suffered blunt trauma injuries consistent with ship strikes — one of the deadliest threats to the animals.
The third died from a chronic entanglement in fishing gear that was wrapped around a fin and inside its mouth.
The deaths are a devastating blow to the whale's fragile population and the scientists who have been working for decades to rebuild a species that was once hunted to the brink of extinction and now numbers about 525.
Robert Michaud of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals in Quebec said he was stunned to hear of such a high number of casualties in one season, when they would normally see about two cases involving whales being hit by ships or getting entangled in fishing gear.
He added that an eighth right whale was freed from a snarl of fishing line on Wednesday by a team on board a research vessel in the same area.
"It raises our concerns — when will this ever stop," he said from Tadoussac. "It is a problem. We don't know exactly what's going on."
The losses also come after a low calving season, with the deaths now outpacing the number of babies born this year.
Moira Brown, a right whale expert with the Canadian Whale Institute, said she had begun shifting her research attention to the Gulf region several years ago when she and her team noticed there were fewer North Atlantic right whales in their traditional haunts in the Bay of Fundy.
In 2015, they found 35 of the whales in the area where the most recent carcasses were spotted. In a survey last year, they found 17 of the whales in the area.
The challenge, she said, is determining that this is a whale habitat and then working with the fishing and shipping industries to come up with ways to protect the animals as has been done in other parts of the Maritimes by rerouting shipping lanes, alerting fishermen to whales' presence and setting speed limits for vessels.
"I think they're shifting based on lack of sightings in the Gulf of Maine and less sightings in the Bay of Fundy," she said.
"The fishing industry and the shipping industry are aware of right whales elsewhere, but they're not aware of them there because it's really early days in us figuring out whether the whales are using this habitat."