This photo of the deceased harbour porpoise on Ucluelet’s Big Beach high tide line was taken on July 22, 2020. (Nora O’Malley photo)

DFO reports unusually high whale mortalities in 2020

“It’s so important to have all these eyes and ears in the community reporting these deaths.”

The putrid smell of a decaying harbour porpoise wafted from the shoreline of Ucluelet’s Big Beach last week.

Paul Cottrell, the B.C. marine mammals co-ordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), said the small and characteristically shy marine mammal was too decomposed to undergo a necropsy.

“It’s going to become part of the food web and will be going back to nature,” said Cottrell, adding that DFO records about 30 to 40 harbour porpoise deaths per year.

Cottrell told the Westerly News there has been an unusually high mortality rate of gray whales over the last couple of years. From the Pacific Coast of Mexico upwards to Alaska, about 150 gray whales have washed up dead this year, according to Cottrell.

“It’s significantly more than a normal year,” he said.

A gray whale carcass that was recently discovered near Ucluelet was “fairly fresh,” and DFO was able to collect samples from the body to determine the cause of death. It had blunt force trauma to the dorsal side, but it may have occurred after death.

Karyssa Arnett and Sydney Dixon from Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society assisted DFO with the onsite necropsy.

“It was really incredible. That was my first time doing that type of thing on site. A 32 and half foot gray whale… that was pretty spectacular,” said Dixon, who holds a double major in geography and environmental studies from the University of Victoria.

They took blubber samples to assess the overall health of the whale, as well as samples of skin, barnacle, organ, and fecal matter through the intestines. Those were sent off to a veterinary pathologist.

Cottrell said one theory for the large die-off of Pacific gray whales is likely related to food supply.

DFO is also investigating an elephant seal carcass that washed up on Cox Bay this month with trauma to the face.

“It’s so important to have all these eyes and ears in the community reporting these deaths. We’ve got a great team in the community out there,” said Cottrell.

To report a marine mammal or sea turtle found entangled, stranded, distressed or dead, call the toll-free marine mammal incident reporting hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-465-4336, use VHF Channel 16 (Coast Guard), or email

This coming August, DFO will lead a mock whale-saving training exercise with community partners. Part of the exercise involves saving a life-sized killer whale from disentanglement.

“I was working on the water before as a whale watching guide for several years. It’s really nice to be on the other side of it. It’s great. I love working in Ucluelet. It’s a beautiful community and it’s nice to be giving back,” Dixon said.

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