June 2009

MICS’s 31st season has begun!

The climate, flora and fauna all seem to be taking their time this year: the trees are still without leaves and a layer of frost is still apparent in the morning as the MICS team arrives, a little late this year, in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan. The capelin has just started rolling, seals and birds can be seen from shore, but minkes have yet to be seen.

As the environment slowly awakens from its winter lull, the MICS team takes the opportunity to rigorously prepare the boats and equipment.

On the opposite side of the Gulf, blue whales are arriving in Gaspé: René Roy, a frequent collaborator and friend of MICS, has sighted at least 12 blues. Through photos which he graciously provided for us, we were able to identify certain individuals, namely Blanco (B169), Éperon (B227) and Bell (B189). Some finbacks and humpbacks were also seen including Sleepy (H642), the calf of Circe (H004), seen for the first time in 2005. 

The Story of Tryphon

On June 9th, MICS was alerted that a sperm whale was entangled in fishing gear near Sept-Iles. The next day, certain members of the MICS team, accompanied by Bruno Richard (Captain of a cruise ship in Sept-Iles) and agents from the Department of Oceans and Fisheries rushed quickly to the site. Upon their arrival, they were notified that fishermen had attempted to free the whale from the crab cages entangling it. However despite their combined effort, the whale managed to escape offshore with the last few cages still wrapped around its body. This sperm whale was identified as a regular visitor to the Estuary, which GREMM had named Tryphon.

A few days later, Tryphon was sighted again in the Estuary still entangled. Frederic Paquet and Christian Ramp from MICS saw this as a window of opportunity to free the whale at last from the fishing gear, and drove from Mingan to the Estuary in half-a-day’s time. Despite the support from the Quebec Network for Marine Mammal Emergencies and Parcs Canada, Tryphon had disappeared by the time Frederic and Christian arrived.

On June 23rd, nearly two weeks later, MICS received the report of a dead sperm whale floating near Pointe-au-Pere. And sadly, the whale was identified as Tryphon. The degree of entanglement must have been far worse than anyone had anticipated.

Depending on the nature of the entanglement, great whales can survive for several weeks being entangled, dragging the gear with them as they displace themselves. But there comes a point where the animal may over exhaust itself, and be no longer able to swim or feed if still entangled.

We hope to learn more about the precise nature of Tryphon’s entanglement and what the ultimate cause of death was. We will be able to apply this knowledge to future entanglement cases, which may be numerous this year, if the trend observed in the past few weeks remains constant.

We also hope that when the whales start arriving, the fishermen will have retrieved most of their crab cages, because the two do not mix well.


Several entanglements

This year there is a great deal of fishing gear in the Jacques Cartier Passage: we’ve counted over 200 floating buoys between the North Shore and Anticosti, each buoy attached to at least two large crab cages (on average 6ft or 1.8m in diameter). Coincidently, several cases of whales entangled in fishing gear have been reported this year.

Recently, we received report of a humpback entangled in Riviere au Tonnerre. And just the day before, we were notified of a young, male finback (measuring approximately 14 m) floating dead in the Jacques Cartier Passage. This finback was also entangled in crab cage gear. Within 10 days, 3 entanglement cases were brought to our attention, with 2 of the cases resulting in the death of the entangled whale. To this, we must also add the additional cases of minke entanglement.

Is there truly a higher incidence of entanglements, or are they simply being reported more frequently than in the past? It would be good news if the latter were correct, since it would allow more efficient disentanglement of whales, and a better understanding of why they become entangled.

If ever you discover a whale in peril, be it injured, entangled, stranded or dead, contact the entanglement network (418) 648-2564 or MICS directly (418) 949-2845.

On a lighter note, five finbacks were sighted during our last outing, plus numerous minkes and some harbour porpoises. Grey and harbour seals are also still abundant.

The museum has opened its doors, the first visitors and tourists participating in days on the water with our biologists have arrived: the 31st season is well underway!