A Canadian marine mammal scientist says North Atlantic right whales are increasingly being spotted in waters off northern Newfoundland.
He says sightings are still relatively rare, but the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is keeping a close eye on the whales to better protect them and manage their impact on fishing and shipping.
"I suspect that these whales have been here before and just probably not seen or identified as such in our waters," said Jack Lawson, who is with DFO in St. John's.
The endangered North Atlantic right whale population is now estimated at around 330, but they have been known to travel great distances for food, so it's possible they have been in Newfoundland waters and not been seen, he said.
For example, a male named Mogul was seen off Newfoundland in 2019, but was also spotted off France, Iceland, Greenland and the east coast of the United States, Lawson said.
They also have dark-coloured backs and may have previously been mistaken for the more common humpbacks.
Still quite rare in Newfoundland waters
But records show North Atlantic right whales were seen in waters around Baie Verte, Twillingate and Bonavista in November and another was spotted along the east coast off the Avalon peninsula.
Lawson said that has led to increased aerial surveys and the use of more acoustic measures, such as static listening posts on the ocean floor and underwater drones to keep track of the mammals' movements.
"They're still quite rare, at least in our waters, but we are spending a lot more effort to look and see if we can hear these animals or see them when we're doing aerial surveys and patrols," he said.
The federal government has been monitoring the whales closely because of their endangered status and their potential impact on human activity.
Several years ago, right whales moved their regular feeding grounds from the Bay of Fundy to the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.
That forced the government to temporarily close some fishing areas in the gulf and reduce speeds in shipping lanes.
Lawson said the whales are not impacting the marine industry around Newfoundland, yet.
"We've always known that these animals are occasionally seen up and around this area," he said.
"It's just if we get a large aggregation like we've seen in the southern gulf, then it becomes a challenge."
Lawson said it's too soon to say if right whales are permanently moving farther north.
"I think we're always going to get these sporadic animals here, but with such a small number of animals and if they can keep finding food in the gulf as they have been, I'm hoping that they stay in an area where we are expending a lot of effort to try and protect them," Lawson said.
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