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FAQs on the 2017 North Atlantic Right Whale UME

NOAA Fisheries has declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for North Atlantic right whale strandings throughout their range based on recent elevated strandings along the Atlantic coast, predominantly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence region in Canada.  The event began in June 2017 and strandings remain elevated. This event began in June 2017 and strandings remain high.

Q: What is an Unusual Mortality Event?

A: An Unusual Mortality Event is defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as a stranding event that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response. There are seven criteria used to determine whether a mortality event is "unusual." If the national Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events (Working Group), a group of marine mammal health experts, determines that an event meets one or more of the criteria, then a recommendation is forwarded to NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries to declare an Unusual Mortality Event.

Q:  What criteria have been met?

A: In this case, the Working Group concluded that four of the seven criteria established for designation of an Unusual Mortality Event have been met these include the following criteria:

  1. A marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in the nature of morbidity, mortality or strandings when compared with prior records.
  2. A temporal change in morbidity, mortality or strandings is occurring.
  3. A spatial change in morbidity, mortality or strandings is occurring.
  4. Potentially significant morbidity, mortality or stranding is observed in species, stocks or populations that are particularly vulnerable (g. listed as depleted, threatened or endangered or declining). For example, stranding of three or four right whales may be cause for great concern whereas stranding of a similar number of fin whales may not.

Q: How widespread is this Unusual Mortality Event?

A: Currently, increased mortalities of North Atlantic right whales have been observed along the Atlantic coast, predominantly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence region of Canada and around the Cape Code area of Massachusetts.

Q: When did the first reports of increased strandings of North Atlantic right whales occur?

A: The first reported stranding in this event was on June 7, 2017 and was a dead North Atlantic right whale reported floating to the west of Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, Canada.  North Atlantic right whale strandings have continued to the present.

Q: How many North Atlantic whales are involved in the event?

A:  The event began on June 7, 2017, and there have been 12 confirmed individual dead stranded whales in Canada and two dead stranded whales in the U.S. during this period.  The annual average for dead strandings in Canada and the U.S. combined is 3.8 whales per year.  Additionally, five live entangled North Atlantic right whales have been documented during this time in Canada with two whales successfully disentangled. Prior to this UME, a North Atlantic right whale calf was found dead in April 2017 in Cape Cod Bay, bringing the year-to-date total to 15 confirmed strandings.      

Q: What are the findings in stranded animals?

A: Several of the carcasses have been in states of advanced decomposition or floating including two carcasses that were not retrieved for examination.  However, full necropsy examinations have been conducted on eight of the 14 cases. Full necropsy results are pending.

Q: Have other marine mammals or animals been affected by this die-off event?

A:  To our knowledge, no other animals have been impacted during this event.

Q: What is the current North Atlantic right whale population along the Atlantic coast?

A: The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most critically endangered populations of large whales in the world (Clapham et al. 1999).  The recent status review by the NOAA Fisheries affirms endangered status (NMFS Northeast Regional Office 2012).  The best estimate for the number of North Atlantic right whales that reside in the North Atlantic Ocean, including U.S. and Canadian Atlantic coastal waters, is ~450-500 whales and the population is experiencing a decline in recent years (SARs; Pace et al., in press).

Q: A number of North Atlantic right whale mortalities were caused by human interactions, what is being done so this does not continue to happen?

A: Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the Canadian government have put mitigation measures in place to help reduce vessel interactions.  These include slowing down ships by implementing a temporary mandatory slow-down of vessels 20 meters or more to a maximum of 10 knots when traveling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island.  This represent a reduction of speed of approximately one third, assuming the average vessel speeds of 15 knots.  Vessels under 20 meters were asked to respect the speed reduction.

Additionally, the Canadian government has enacted fishery closures to help reduce future entanglements.  These include closing Snow Crab Fishing Area 12 in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence (all fishing gear has been removed from the water) as well as modifying fixed gear fisheries such as rock and toad crab fisheries that have either been restricted to fish in shallow water (less than 20 fathoms) or have had a delayed opening.

In the U.S. NOAA, in coordination with our stranding network partners, continues to investigate the recent mortalities around Cape Cod, environmental conditions, and population monitoring to better understand how the recent North Atlantic Right whale mortalities occurred.  Since several of the Canadian whales showed evidence of human interactions, NOAA is reviewing its guidance on vessel traffic.

Commercial and Larger Vessel Traffic

In the U.S. ship speed reduction rules are in effect during high concentrations of right whales, and require vessels greater than or equal to 65 feet in length to reduce speeds to 10 knots or less while entering or departing ports.  This rule was put into place primarily for right whale presence in New England and Mid-Atlantic waters from November through July. NOAA is reviewing ship-tracking data to ensure compliance with the ship speed reduction rule around the Cape Cod areas.

Recreational Boaters

We remind boaters in coast waters throughout the region to keep a close eye out for feeding whales, and to remember to follow safe viewing guidelines, which include staying 100 feet away from the whales for your safety and theirs.

Environmental / Population Monitoring

NOAA is consulting with researchers that are conducting studies on the North Atlantic right whale population.  Current research efforts may provide information on changes in whale distribution and habitat use that could provide additional insight into how these vessel interactions occurred.

Q: What are the next steps in the investigation now that an Unusual Mortality Event has been declared?

A:  As part of the Unusual Mortality Event investigation process, an independent team of scientists (Investigative Team) is being assembled to coordinate with the Working Group and DFO to review the data collected and to determine potential next steps.  The Investigative Team will also coordinate its investigation with other on-going Unusual Mortality Event investigations.  The investigation may require months, or even years of data collection, analysis, and interpretation.  Lastly, we will be working closely with our colleagues at DFO, Canada as they continue to investigate the mortalities in Canadian waters.

Q: What additional resources are now available to pursue the investigation, since an Unusual Mortality Event has been declared?

A:  An Unusual Mortality Event declaration provides additional expertise to evaluate strandings from the Working Group (an international and multi-disciplinary team of scientists), as well as additional stranding response partners, and access to additional funding through the National UME Contingency Fund.  In addition, a detailed investigative plan will be developed that may include more targeted necropsies; further testing of samples for biotoxins, bacterial or viral agents; and diagnostic pathology services. Finally, this process will provide national and international scientific review of findings and interpretations.

Q: Will you be collecting additional biological and environmental information?

A:  The Stranding Network will continue to collect and analyze samples as needed to evaluate the situation from whales that strand in U.S. waters.  The Working Group will decide whether additional information is needed. 

Q: When will you have some results to share?

A:  The Investigative Team will begin developing an investigative plan in September or October. You can track the progress of our investigation from our Unusual Mortality Event website.

Q: Where can I find additional information on the Canadian investigation into the North Atlantic right whale mortalities?

A: You can visit the DFO website that gives details about the current Canadian investigation into the mortalities in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

For press: Ashley Jackson, ashley.jackson@dfo-mpo.gc.ca, Cel: 226-936-1508.

Q: What is the risk to humans?

A:  Large whales are wild animals and may injure people if approached closely.

Q: Are there any risks to pets?

A: Pets should always be kept away from marine mammals, particularly diseased or dead marine mammals.

Q: How many North Atlantic right whale Unusual Mortality Events have previously occurred along the Atlantic coast?

A: One previous Unusual Mortality Event involving North Atlantic right whales occurred in 1996.  This event involved six whales that stranded dead in Florida and Georgia over a 2-month time period (January and February).  One of these animals died as the result of ship strike but cause of death was uncertain in the remaining five.  This event resulted in substantial improvements in the way NOAA Fisheries responds to right whale mortalities (e.g. emphasis on retrieving carcasses quickly, building an experienced network of responders, developing sampling protocols, etc.).

Q: How many other large whale Unusual Mortality Events have previously occurred along the Atlantic coast?

A: Four previous or current Unusual Mortality Events involving large whales have occurred in the Atlantic basin in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2016-2017 (ongoing).  Three events involved primarily humpback whales in 2003 (16 whales), 2006 (48 whales), and 2016-2017 (51 whales as of August 2017) this last investigation is active and still ongoing.  The 2005 event involved 34 whales of multiple cetacean species. Causes of the three closed Unusual Mortality Events was undetermined and the current 2016-2017 UME is still under investigation.

Q: Are there any connections between the current, active UME for humpbacks and the UME now being declared for right whales in the Atlantic Ocean?

A: Currently, there is no direct connection between the two UMEs but both investigative teams will stay abreast of the investigations and evaluate if there are any connections in the future.

Q: Where can I find additional information on North Atlantic right whales and other Unusual Mortality Events?

A:  You can visit the national NOAA Fisheries Protected Resources website at:

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/whales/north-atlantic-right-whale.html

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/events.html

Q: What should people do if they encounter a dead large whale floating or stranded on the beach?

A:   Please immediately contact your local stranding network or local authorities to report a live or dead stranded whale:

Q: What can I do to help the investigation?

A: The most important step members of the public can take to assist investigators is to immediately report any sightings of live whales in distress or stranded or dead whales. Make the report by calling the Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 866-755-6622, the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 877-433-8299, the Canadian Marine Animal Response Society at 1-8666-567-6277 or the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network at 1-877-722-5346 or contact the U.S. or Canadian Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16. Again, do not approach or touch the whale.

Additionally, the public may donate to the UME Contingency Fund using Pay.gov for this or other Unusual Mortality Events and help cover costs incurred by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Q: What should people do if they witness harassment of a whale in the water or on the beach?

A: To report violations or for more information on NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement call the toll-free number: 1-800-853-1964.

Q: What is the Unusual Mortality Event Contingency Fund?

A:  The MMPA’s Section 405 (16 USC  1421d) establishes the Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event Fund and describes its purposes and how donations can be made to the Fund.  The fund: “shall be available only for use by the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior:

Additional information on the Unusual Mortality Event Contingency Fund can be found on our UME Fund website.

Q: How can deposits be made into the Unusual Mortality Event Contingency Fund?

A: Deposits can be made into Fund by the following:

Additionally, the public may donate to the UME Contingency Fund using Pay.gov for this or other Unusual Mortality Events and help cover costs incurred by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Updated: October 6, 2017