Frequent Questions – 2017 North Atlantic Right Whale Unusual Mortality Event

January 23, 2018

NOAA Fisheries has declared a 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.

Table of Contents

What is an Unusual Mortality Event (UME)?

An UME 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, a group of marine mammal health experts, determines that an event meets one or more of the criteria, then it forwards a recommendation to NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries to declare a UME.

What criteria have been met?

In this case, the working group concluded that three of the seven criteria 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.

How widespread is this UME?

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 Cod area of Massachusetts.

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

The first reported stranding in this event was on June 7, 2017. A dead North Atlantic right whale was 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.

How many North Atlantic whales are involved in the event?

There have been 12 confirmed dead stranded whales in Canada and two dead stranded whales in the United States during this UME. The annual average for dead strandings in Canada and the United States combined is 3.8 whales per year. Additionally, five live entangled North Atlantic right whales have been documented in Canada, with two whales successfully disentangled. Before 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.

Have other marine mammals or animals been affected by this UME?

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

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

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most critically endangered populations of large whales in the world. NOAA Fisheries’ recent status review reaffirms the species’ endangered status. 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 to 500 whales. The population has experienced a decline in recent years.

Many North Atlantic right whale mortalities were caused by human interactions. What is being done so this does not continue to happen?

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the Canadian government have established mitigation measures to help reduce vessel interactions. These include 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 reduces ship speeds by approximately one-third, assuming that the average vessel speed is 15 knots. Vessels under 20 meters were also asked to respect the speed reduction.

Additionally, the Canadian government has enacted fishery closures to help reduce future entanglements. For example, it closed Snow Crab Fishing Area 12 in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence (all fishing gear has been removed from the water). The government has also modified fixed gear fisheries, such as those for rock and toad crab, restricting them to fish in shallow water (less than 20 fathoms) or delaying their opening.

 In the United States, NOAA Fisheries and its stranding network partners are investigating environmental conditions and monitoring the North Atlantic right whale population to better understand how the recent mortalities occurred. Since several of the Canadian whales showed evidence of human interactions, NOAA is reviewing its guidance on vessel traffic.

What kind of rules are in place for commercial and larger vessel traffic to prevent right whale mortalities?

In the United States, ship speed reduction rules are in effect during high concentrations of right whales. They 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 established primarily for right whale presence in New England and Mid-Atlantic waters from November through July. NOAA Fisheries is reviewing ship-tracking data to ensure compliance with the ship speed reduction rule around the Cape Cod area.

What can recreational boaters do to prevent mortalities?

We remind boaters in coastal 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.

What is NOAA Fisheries doing to learn more about vessel interactions?

NOAA Fisheries is consulting with researchers who are studying 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.

What are the next steps in the investigation now that a UME has been declared?

As part of the UME investigation process, an independent team of scientists (investigative team) is being assembled to coordinate with the UME working group and DFO to review the data collected and determine potential next steps. The investigative team will also coordinate its investigation with other ongoing UME 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 as they continue to investigate the mortalities in Canadian waters.

Will you be collecting additional biological and environmental information?

Stranding network partners will continue to collect and analyze samples as needed to evaluate the situation. The working group will decide whether additional information is needed. 

When will you have some results to share?

The investigative team will begin developing an investigative plan in the next few months. You can track the progress of our investigation from our main UME webpage.

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

You can visit the Canadian DFO website which gives details about the current Canadian investigation into the mortalities in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. For press, contact Ashley Jackson, ashley.jackson@dfo-mpo.gc.ca, Cel: 1 (226) 936-1508.

What is the risk to humans?

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

Are there any risks to pets?

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

How many North Atlantic right whale UMEs have previously occurred along the Atlantic coast?

One previous UME involving North Atlantic right whales occurred in 1996. Six whales stranded dead in Florida and Georgia over a 2-month time period (January and February). One of these animals died as the result of a ship strike, but the cause of death was uncertain in the remaining five. This UME 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).

How many other large whale UMEs have previously occurred along the Atlantic coast?

Six previous or current UMEs involving large whales have occurred in the Atlantic basin in 1996, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2016-2017 (current), and 2017 (current).  Three events involved primarily humpback whales in 2003 (16 whales), 2006 (48 whales), and 2016-2017 (59 whales to date). The 2016-2017 investigation is active and still ongoing.  Two events involved North Atlantic right whales in 1996 (6 whales), and 2017 (16 whales). The 2017 investigation is active and still ongoing.  The 2005 event involved 34 whales of multiple cetacean species. Causes of the four closed UMEs were undetermined (n=3) and human interaction (n=1). The current 2016-2017 humpback whale and 2017 North Atlantic right whale UMEs are still under investigation.

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

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.

Where can I find additional information on North Atlantic right whales and other UMEs?

You can find more information on our North Atlantic right whales and UME webpages.

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

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

  • From Maine to Virginia, call (866) 755-NOAA (6622).
  • For North Carolina to Florida, call (877) 433-8299.
  • Do not touch the whale.
  • Don’t allow pets to approach the whale.
  • Observe the animal from a safe distance of 100 yards (safe for you and the animal).

What can I do to help the investigation?

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. Call the Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at (866) 755-6622, the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at (877) 433-8299, or contact the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16. Do not approach or touch the whale. 

Additionally, the public may use Pay.gov to donate to the UME Contingency Fund this or other UMEs and help cover costs incurred by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

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

To report violations, please contact NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement at (800) 853-1964.

What is the UME Contingency Fund?

MMPA section 405 (16 USC 1421d) establishes the Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event Fund, describing its purposes and how the public can donate to the fund. According to the MMPA, the fund “shall be available only for use by the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior:

  • To compensate persons for special costs incurred in acting in accordance with the contingency plan issued under section 1421c(b) of this title or under the direction of an Onsite Coordinator for an unusual mortality event.
  • For reimbursing any stranding network participant for costs incurred in preparing and transporting tissues collected with respect to an unusual mortality event for the Tissue Bank.
  • For care and maintenance of marine mammal seized under section 1374(c)(2)(D) of this title.”

The National Contingency Plan for Response to Unusual Marine Mammal Mortality Events outlines the types of expenses that are reimbursable under the fund and the process for requesting reimbursement.

Learn more about the UME Contingency Fund.

How can deposits be made into the UME Contingency Fund?

The following can be deposited into the fund:

  • Amounts appropriated to the fund.
  • Other amounts appropriated to the Secretary for use with respect to UMEs.
  • Amounts received by the United States in the form of gifts, devises, and bequests under subsection (d) of section 405(d) of the MMPA.

The public may use Pay.gov to donate to the UME Contingency Fund for this or other UMEs and help cover costs incurred by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.