ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — The discovery of nine dead whales off Newfoundland earlier this month is a significant loss to the endangered species, a research scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said Tuesday.
Jack Lawson said it’s believed the adult blue whales either drowned or were crushed by heavy ice while feeding off the island’s southwest coast.
“We rarely see calves for this particular population, so they don’t seem to be breeding very quickly,” he said from St. John’s.
“To have that many adults taken out of the population is a serious blow.”
The carcasses were found April 4 strewn in a line about 64 kilometres from the coast.
“We suspect they swam up into the area in Port au Port, which is like a downward-facing cup,” said Lawson.
“They got up there and were feeding and the winds changed to be westerly, pushed that heavy ice back in, and it was just like closing the lid on the cup. Then they had nowhere to go.”
A helicopter carrying a team of Fisheries workers, including Lawson, was unable to land on the ice where the whales were found, but photos were taken for the department’s records.
Since then, Lawson said two whale carcasses were spotted last Tuesday in the Strait of Belle Isle and four more on the weekend in the Bonne Bay area, but he suspects they are the among the original nine whales.
“We keep monitoring these particular animals,” he said. “The big concern is every time they come ashore, people think they’re more dead whales. We’ll be looking at the patterns on these particular animals to see if we can match them.”
The Gulf of St. Lawrence has been choked this winter by ice so thick that Lawson said coast guard icebreakers have been getting caught, and there’s little that can be done to protect the whales. Strong winds can also shift massive chunks of ice like pieces of a puzzle.
“The best you can do is try to assess how many animals might be killed by this and use that as a means of monitoring your population,” he said. “But I don’t believe we can do anything for them.”
Lawson said the Atlantic population of the species is endangered, with only about 250 mature blue whales remaining in waters off Eastern Canada.