The first thing that struck me was the enormity of the Atlantic right whale as I watched it being slowly pulled ashore by a heavy equipment excavator.
And I wished my first glimpse of this 40-foot, 60-ton giant – one of the world’s most endangered mammals – had been of it gently breaking the surface during a whale-watching tour.
The next thing that grabbed my attention was the human activity inside a restricted area surrounding the dead whale, up to 40 conservationists, scientists and researchers who gave up a good part of their Canada Day weekend trying to learn how this huge mammal had died.
They seemed oblivious to an almost overwhelming stench as they dissected and examined the rapidly decaying carcass. Observing a small part of the necropsies (the animal equivalent of an autopsy) performed on three right whales and talking to a few of the scientists that weekend gave me a greater appreciation of a tragic story that continues to unfold.
It’s the story of the Atlantic right whale, once hunted to near extinction, facing its latest challenge for survival in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Over the summer months, 10, including the three necropsied in Norway, P.E.I., were discovered dead in the Gulf – a devastating number when it’s believed fewer than 525 of them are left in the world.
And on that hot July weekend, it lent to the urgency of the small army of men and women who worked feverishly to find out exactly what caused the deaths and, depending on their findings, if preventative measures should be taken.
Preliminary results suggested that one whale had become entangled in fishing gear and several others died as a result of blunt trauma possibly caused by ship strikes. Subsequently, the Canadian government closed part of the snow crab fishery in the southern Gulf a few days before the end of the season and ordered large vessels to slow down in the Gulf to reduce the possibility of collisions with right whales.
Not long after the speed restrictions were imposed, 10 cruise ships cancelled planned stops in P.E.I. That translates into 8,000 fewer visitors and about $1.6 million in lost revenue for the province’s tourism industry.
Some business operators fear it could get much worse if it causes other cruise lines to bypass the Island next year.
There are no easy answers. There are plenty of questions. Will the speed restrictions remain in place or will it be a temporary measure? Will the right whales return to the Gulf in such large numbers near year? Did the cruise lines react too hastily?
It will be interesting to see if Tourism Minister Heath MacDonald’s meeting with industry stakeholders yesterday shed any light on these and other concerns.
I thought an observation by one Island businessman impacted by the cruise ship cancellations hit the nail struck exactly the right chord.
Bill Kendrick said protecting the right whales is critical but he’s determined there has to be a way to do that without harming an important industry.
“To me, it’s not an either-or situation. We need to do both.”
The trick is to find that delicate balance. The clock is ticking.
- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.