Right whale deaths in Gulf of St. Lawrence

To date, the deaths of 7 North Atlantic Right whales have been confirmed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is concerned by these deaths and takes the recovery, protection and conservation of endangered species very seriously.

DFO is committed to:

  • protecting this species and supporting its recovery
  • finding out the cause of death of these whales
  • doing everything possible to prevent whale deaths in the future
  • ensuring response actions proceed in the safest manner possible for everyone involved

Last Updated: July 18, 2017

What We’re Doing Now

On July 10, 2017, Mr. Joe Howlett, of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, tragically lost his life while taking part in a rescue operation to disentangle a North Atlantic Right whale off the Eastern coast of New Brunswick. We are deeply saddened by the loss of Mr. Howlett and send our sincere thoughts and condolences to his family and friends.

As with any disentanglement operation, there are serious risks involved. Each situation is unique and these whales can be unpredictable.

In light of this, DFO has paused its responses to entangled North Atlantic Right whales.

Pausing Disentanglements

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently reviewing its policies and practices regarding response to whale entanglements. The Department’s objective is to ensure that response actions proceed in the safest way possible for everyone involved. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also reviewing its protocols and has temporarily suspended its whale rescuing efforts.

The pause on responding to entangled North Atlantic Right whales will be in effect until the review is completed. DFO will carefully assess each case of entanglement for other types of whales to decide whether and how to respond.

Additional steps to help protect the Right whale

Work is already underway at DFO to help protect the North Atlantic Right whale population, including:

  • Issuing a notice to the commercial fishing industry in the Gulf of St. Lawrence asking fishermen to watch for whales and to report any sightings;
  • Broadcasting notices on the marine radio system to request shipping and fishing industries be on alert for whales;
  • Addressing threats to marine mammals in Canadian waters and enhancing capacity to respond to marine mammal incidents through the Government of Canada’s $1.5 billion investment in the Oceans Protection Plan;
  • Issuing a notice requesting that mariners voluntarily reduce speed along the Laurentian channel in shipping lanes between the Magdalen Islands to the Gaspé peninsula until September 30, 2017;
  • Implementing an immediate partial closure within the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishing area where whales are known to frequent;
  • Reviewing fisheries in the area and taking measures to avoid negative impacts on the whales; and
  • Continuing to work with partners to necropsy all dead whales to better understand what may have caused their deaths.


Three carcasses were brought to shore on a secluded beach near Norway, Prince Edward Island. Necropsies took place from June 29 to July 1, 2017, to determine the cause of death or rule out certain causes of death.

On July 9 and 10, 2017, two additional necropsies of whale carcasses took place on the Magdalen Islands.

DFO and its partners are working as quickly as possible to thoroughly evaluate potential causes of death. Laboratory analyses are required. Tissue and fluid samples will be analysed at multiple specialized laboratories; some of these tests, including tissue cultures, will take weeks to complete.

Once the samples are tested, experts will then need to carefully analyze the results. The full process is expected to take 6-8 weeks from the time of each necropsy. DFO will discuss the final results of the necropsies once they become available.

Watch video footage of the first towing operation (June 28, 2017)


DFO is collaborating with other governments, groups who have expertise in marine mammals and species at risk, and others to determine what happened to the whales and to prevent future incidents. Partners include:

  • Dalhousie University
  • Université de Montréal
  • New Brunswick Museum
  • Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative
  • Canadian Whale Institute in New Brunswick
  • Marine Animal Response Society in Nova Scotia
  • Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island
  • Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals in Quebec
  • Transport Canada
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada
  • the provincial governments of Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island
  • commercial fishers
  • New England Aquarium
  • Marine Mammal Commission
  • University of North Carolina Wilmington
  • U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

On Wednesday, July 5, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and partners responded to an entangled North Atlantic Right whale off the east coast of New Brunswick, and successfully freed the whale.

Surveys and patrols

DFO will continue to work with partners to monitor and assess any reports of dead or distressed whale sightings.

Status of right whales in Gulf of St. Lawrence

The North Atlantic right whale is an endangered species in Canada. It’s protected under the:

The global population is approximately 500.

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