After 35 years of blue whale research in Atlantic Canadian waters, only 22 blue whale calves have been identified in our waters. This suggests a frighteningly low calving rate, which translates into a shaky recovery. With a population below 250 sexually mature adults producing only 22 calves over 35 years, the loss of any blue whales in Atlantic Canada can be considered a tragedy.
With the recent success of the northwest Pacific blue whale population in approaching historic number, we know recovery is possible for this species. However, obstacles to recovery on our coast are still too numerous.
Ship Strikes: Collisions between whales and heavy transport vessels are a leading cause of whale mortality worldwide. Whales breathe air and too often when they visit the surface to fill their lungs, they are in popular shipping lanes. It’s estimated such collisions are fatal to whales in 70 per cent of cases and the 30 per cent who survive carry grotesque scars on their backs. Ten per cent of blues identified in the northwest Atlantic population carry such scars. According to the DFO, this threat is real and likely significant, though often unreported and unnoticed by the ships involved.
Seismic Testing: Little is known about the impacts of seismic testing on blue whales, because sufficient research has not been conducted. However, seismic testing has the capacity to deafen or even kill marine mammals caught too close. Sound waves from seismic tests travel incredible distances in our oceans and these waves have the potential to interfere with whale communication. These animals rely on sound to finding mates, food, avoid predators and navigate our oceans. A popular saying is that a deaf whale is a dead whale.
Two seismic surveys for the Gulf of St Lawrence were completed in 2010 and testing continues in earnest along the east coast of Nova Scotia.
Oil Spills: According to a recovery strategy published by the DFO in 2009, fumes from oil spills can severely harm the blue whale’s eyes, mouth and lungs; ingesting oil either directly or by eating contaminated krill can cause gastro-intestinal and pulmonary intoxication, and possibly feeding problems.
“The exploitation of oil and gas along the northwest Atlantic coasts and in the Gulf of St Lawrence…represents an additional risk for pollution,” the strategy said. “Toxic spills are therefore a potential threat that cannot be ignored.”
In spite of the DFO’s warning, this potential threat is being ignored. Besides the multiple oil and gas operations on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, a controversial exploratory well is being proposed at a site known as Old Harry, located in the heart of the Gulf of St Lawrence. This would be the first major oil and gas operation in the Gulf, built in a critical feeding ground for blue whales and countless other species.