North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence 2015 and 2016: Dedicated surveys find unprecedented numbers


Philip Hamilton. Timothy Cole, Peter Duley, Christian Ramp, Richard Sears, Moira Brown



Since 2010, the well-studied population of North Atlantic right whales has shifted their habitat use patterns away from three of their four primary feeding habitats. There have been sporadic sightings of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence over the last four decades with less than a dozen different individuals seen in most years. Between 2015 and 2016, three organizations surveyed over 34,000 km and collected over 220 photographed right whale sightings. With analysis still underway, more than 40 individuals were photo documented each year- a minimum of 74 individuals combined or approximately 15% of the cataloged population. The sex ratio (38% female, 61% male, and 1% unknown) was no different than expected when compared to the cataloged population. Adults were marginally more prevalent than expected (85% adult, 15% juvenile). In 2016, nearly half of all living calves of the year were seen in the Gulf. Right whales were found aggregated 20-40 nm east and north of Miscou Island, New Brunswick and in an area north and west of Anticosti Island, Quebec. An additional area of interest is east of the Gaspe Peninsula where sightings have been documented since the mid to late 1990s. In 2015, three right whales died of unknown causes in the Gulf during a three week period in June and early July, and at least three right whales have been entangled in crab gear in the last two years (at least one later died). There needs to be further study of this large area to determine the full geographic and temporal extent of right whale presence in the Gulf and where that presence overlaps with fishing and shipping activity. The presence of cows with calves and pregnant and resting females in the region underscores the urgency for protective measures from human related impacts.