DAO prepress abstract  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/dao03376

Gross and histopathologic diagnoses from North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacialis mortalities between 2003 and 2018

Sarah M. Sharp*, William A. McLellan, David S. Rotstein, Alexander M. Costidis, Susan G. Barco, Kimberly Durham, Thomas D. Pitchford, Katharine A. Jackson, Pierre-Yves Daoust, Tonya Wimmer, Emilie L. Couture, Laura Bourque, Timothy Frasier, Brenna Frasier, Deborah Fauquier, Teresa K. Rowles, Philip K. Hamilton, Heather Pettis, Michael J. Moore

*Email: ssharp@ifaw.org

ABSTRACT: Seventy mortalities of North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis (NARW) were documented between 2003 and 2018 from Florida, USA to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada. This included 29 adults, 14 juveniles, 10 calves, and 17 unknown age class. Females represented 65.5% (19/29) of known-sex adults. Fourteen cases had photos only; 56 carcasses received external examinations, 44 of which were also necropsied. Cause of death was determined in 43 cases, 38 (88.4%) of which were due to anthropogenic trauma: 22 (57.9%) from entanglement and 16 (42.1%) from vessel strike. Gross and histopathologic lesions associated with entanglement were often severe and included deep lacerations caused by constricting line wraps around the flippers, flukes, and head/mouth; baleen plate mutilation; chronic extensive bone lesions from impinging line, and traumatic scoliosis resulting in compromised mobility in a calf. Chronically entangled whales were often in poor body condition and had increased cyamid burden reflecting compromised health. Vessel strike blunt force injuries included skull and vertebral fractures, blubber and muscle contusions, and large blood clots. Propeller-induced wounds often caused extensive damage to blubber, muscle, viscera, and bone. Overall prevalence of NARW entanglement mortalities increased from 21% (1970–2002) to 51% during this study period. This demonstrates that despite mitigation efforts, entanglements and vessel strikes continue to inflict profound physical trauma and suffering on individual NARWs. These cumulative mortalities are also unsustainable at the population level, so urgent and aggressive intervention is needed to end anthropogenic mortality in this critically endangered species.