Female North Atlantic right whale found dead, hampering conservation efforts

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Environment There are only a few hundred of this whale species left. One was just found dead near Martha’s Vineyard. The young North Atlantic right whale, who was one of about 70 females of the species left in the wild, was found just days before an annual fishery closure was scheduled to start. In this photo provided by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a female right whale was found dead off Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. Federal authorities say a rare whale found dead off Massachusetts shows potential evidence of injury from entanglement in fishing gear, which is one of the most pressing threats to the species. (Michael Moore/©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution via AP) Michael Moore/AP
A deceased juvenile North Atlantic right whale — one of only about 350 left in the wild — was found dead off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard Sunday.
While the whale’s cause of death is still under investigation, the deceased female was found entangled in fishing gear, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said. The death is a setback for conservation efforts of North Atlantic right whales, which are critically endangered and could go extinct over the next 12-15 years, experts say.
According to Kathleen Collins, IFAW senior marine campaign manager and part of a team investigating the death, the deceased whale is about 27 to 30 feet in length and weighs about 11 tons. Given her length and weight, experts estimate her to be around 2 to 3 years old.
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“The fact that this death was a juvenile female that wasn’t given the opportunity to reach reproductive age is really quite catastrophic for this population,” Collins said, adding that out of about 350 whales left in the population, only around 70 are females.
According to IFAW, the death comes during the North Atlantic right whale calving season, with 16 calves being born so far.
Though the whale was found with its tail entangled in rope, experts won’t be able to definitively determine the whale’s cause of death until a necropsy, or animal autopsy, is completed in the coming weeks, Collins said.
Even if it wasn’t the direct cause of death, an entangled tail could have caused complications for the juvenile mammal, including making it harder for her to swim and eat. It could also have compromised her ability to escape from other threats like fast-moving boats, according to Collins.
“While we don’t know the cause of death yet, we know that entanglements can lead to long term suffering and death,” IFAW animal rescue veterinarian Sarah Sharp said in a statement. “We also know that entanglements must be prevented to save this species from extinction.”
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The whale is currently secured to the beach where it was found off of Edgartown, Massachusetts, and will be positively identified Wednesday, Collins said. IFAW, NOAA, and other agencies responding to the death were able to examine her body and look at her wounds when the tide was low and the whale was beached on Tuesday, according to Collins.
Oceana said in a statement that entanglement with fishing gear and collisions with boats are the top threats to the critically endangered whale species. Since 2017, 55 of the mammals have been killed or seriously injured by boat strikes or entanglement, and between 2003 and 2018, 88.4% of deaths were caused by strikes or entanglement, according to IFAW data.
Collins said that while the age of whales that have recently been found dead ranges, North Atlantic right whales are “by and large” dying at a younger age because of man-made causes.
“All the whales that died in [these statistics] have died prematurely compared to [when] they would die in the wild if they were to die naturally,” Collins said, describing the population as “chronically stressed and skinny.”
According to a statement by IFAW, the death of the whale comes three days before the annual closure of fishing grounds in Massachusetts and surrounding federal waters scheduled for Feb. 1. The shutdown is part of NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan that implements fishery closures during critical seasons to remove hazardous gear from the water.
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Advocates also say rope-less fishing tools are a possible solution to the problem, allowing fishermen to continue making their livelihood while reducing the risk of entanglement.
The death of the whale marks the second incident this month that the species has been affected by man-made hazards. One of the few endangered calves born this season was found with “serious injuries” Jan. 3 after it was struck by a boat.
“January has started and ended with a tragedy for critically endangered North Atlantic right whales,” said Kim Elmslie, campaign director at Oceana in Canada, in a statement. “A female right calf was found dead, right on the heels of news of another calf struck by a small boat at the beginning of the month, underscores the urgent need for continued, strong and mandatory protection to safeguard these whales from entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes. With a population of just 356 whales left, each loss significantly impacts the already fragile population.”

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