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Humpback whale corpse in fish farm raises questions

A dead humpback whale is seen floating near Tofino, B.C., in this March 27, 2013, handout photo.

Handout/The Canadian Press

Investigators from Fisheries and Oceans Canada are trying to determine how an adult humpback whale ended up dead inside a fish farm on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

A Mainstream Canada representative says it looks like the whale died at sea, drifted in and then floated up inside the salmon pens. But Larry Paike, Director of Conservation and Protection for DFO thinks that unlikely.

"There is no visible trauma. It hasn't been shot, thank goodness, it hasn't been hit by a boat," he said Thursday. "So there are a number of possible scenarios. One it dies of natural causes, drifts into a hole in the predator net and once it bloats comes up underneath. That is kind of like trying to shoot a hockey puck from centre ice into a golf cup holder.

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"A more likely scenario is it was feeding, became disoriented, confused … and somehow became encumbered with the ropes from the predator net, or the predator net itself, and then subsequently drowned."

Mr. Paike said a necropsy would be done Friday to determine cause of death.

"Certainly water in the lungs would indicate to me it's drowned," he said.

But Laurie Jensen of Mainstream Canada, which runs the farm in Ross Pass, north of Tofino, said she thinks the whale was already long dead when it hit the nets.

"It appears it drifted into the system and then got hung up," she said.

Salmon farms have been criticized in the past over the number of sea lions, seals and marine birds that have died in their nets, but there haven't been any reports before of whales getting caught.

Steve Lawson, an environmental activist who lives in the area, said the discovery of the humpback corpse raises troubling questions.

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"That area is on the way to Hot Springs Cove and it gets a lot of boat traffic," he said. "If a dead whale was floating in that area, somebody would have seen it, and news like that really spreads fast. It could have floated there and drifted into the nets, but that would be very unusual. "

Mr. Lawson said it will be interesting to see if DFO investigators find any signs of net cuts on the whale's body.

Ms. Jensen said it appears the whale died some time ago, but divers who did a routine net inspection two days ago didn't see any dead whale.

"One would think a very large whale would have been noticed," said Ms. Jensen.

But she added at this point the farm operators don't know for sure what happened and they are co-operating with the DFO investigation.

Ms. Jensen said Mainstream, which operates farms in several different locations on the B.C. coast, has never had any problems with humpback whales trying to get into its pens.

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She said whale was found Wednesday morning when it floated up beside and underneath the main containment net, which is protected by the outer ring of predator nets.

Ms. Jensen said Mainstream staff, who are at the farm around the clock, did not see or hear anything to suggest a big animal was struggling in the predator nets.

"There was no net changes, no activity and they hadn't seen any whales near the farm, or near any of the farms," she said.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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