Rising right whale death toll could be 'catastrophic:' marine biologist

A marine mammal expert says the fate of critically endangered species could hang in the balance as the death toll of North Atlantic right whales found floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence rises to six.

Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society says the unprecedented string of deaths has been ``catastrophic,'' amounting to more than one per cent of the 500 North Atlantic right believed to be roaming the seas.

Wimmer says time is of the essence as aircraft and Canadian Coast Guard vessels try to track down the carcasses adrift in waters near the Magdalen Islands.

She says it will take a ``small army'' to fully dissect the carcass of a 70-tonne mammal, but collecting biological samples will be critical to determining what happened to the whales and preventing further losses.

The marine biologist says North Atlantic right whales have only recently been spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, raising questions about whether environmental factors could have played a role.

The North Atlantic right whale was hunted to near extinction in the late 18th century and has struggled ever since.

A federal fisheries official says a meeting will be held Monday to discuss hauling one of the whales to shore for a post-mortem examination.