A northern bottlenose whale peeks its nose out from under the sea. - Photo courtesy of DFO
Evidence suggests the northern bottlenose whale population has declined from 40 year ago, when whaling efforts last took place in the Baffin Bay-Davis Strait-Labrador Sea area.
Now, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is taking steps to consider whether the population needs protection.
Already labelled a species of special concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), the whales are now being considered for inclusion on the List of Wildlife Species at Risk under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).
Helen Griffiths, SARA's regional manager in Newfoundland and Labrador, said a COSEWIC assessment completed last May found the region's population was severely reduced by the whaling practices of the 1960s and 1970s.
According to the assessment and status report, Norwegian whalers harvested 818 whales from 1969 to 1971, and British whalers were also active at the time, driven by markets for oil and spermaceti (a wax found in the heads of whales).
The northern bottlenose whale is now listed as a protected species by the International Whaling Commission, with no regular hunt in existence. Whales are occasionally harvested as part of a multi-species fishery in the Faroe Islands between Iceland and Scotland, according to the COSEWIC assessment.
An aerial survey conducted in 2007 identified a single sighting of northern bottlenose whales in flights off Labrador. That's compared to nine sightings made in the same year off eastern and southern Newfoundland and three off the Scotian Shelf.
The Scotian Shelf population is already considered endangered by COSEWIC and SARA.
The COSEWIC report found there has been no evidence of a population trend since then, though the scarcity of recent sightings may indicate the population has declined, and the threat of interactions with the fishery has been an ongoing concern.
The whales are known to interact with offshore trawlers and longliners and have, on occasion, become entangled in fishing gear.
If the Labrador Sea population obtains a listing under SARA, Griffiths said, a management plan to aid conservation, protection and species recovery will be created.
"If it's listed under SARA as threatened or endangered, there's prohibitions in place to provide that species with some level of protection. If it's listed under SARA as (being of) special concern, what that means is it's not subject to restrictions and there will be a management plan put in place to try and manage that species."
She said creating a management plan involves consulting all parties with a stake in the species.
"We don't do this in isolation," said Griffiths. "This is done in consultation with DFO fisheries management, science and, most definitely, it's done in consultation and collaboration with external folks who have some interest in the species."
In the case of the Scotian Shelf population of the northern bottlenose whale, it benefits from the Gully Marine Protected Area, which has regulations prohibiting the disturbance, damage, destruction or removal of any marine organism living within its habitat.
The deep-water portion of the area is considered a critical habitat for northern bottlenose whales and has the highest level of protection in the management of the protected area. Some oil and gas operations within the Scotian Shelf have also introduced measures to protect the whale population, according to DFO.
DFO has worked to reduce traffic through the gully to limit the potential for collisions, noise pollution and oil spills or other forms of pollution.
SARA is accepting comments from the public on the possibility of labelling northern bottlenose whales in the Baffin Bay, Davis Strait and Labrador Sea area as a species at risk.
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