An unprecedented number of North Atlantic right whales have been found tangled in fishing rope this winter off Georgia and Florida – and scientists are trying to find out where the marine giants, which summer off New England, picked up the gear.
Normally, scientists report one or two entangled right whales in the Southeast each year. But this year, five have been spotted. While three were disentangled – the latest last week off Georgia – two others still have rope wrapped around them.
The rope is often lethal to the animals, cinching into the skin, and even cutting into bone over time. While some whales get rid of the gear on their own, many others carry hundreds of feet of rope for years, slowly dying as it becomes hard to feed and move, or as infection festers in the wound.
That five entangled right whales have been found this year is “alarming,” said biologist Laura Engleby of the National Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service.
In each of the recent entanglements, a large amount of rope was seen in or around the whales’ mouths – often more than 500 feet of line, NOAA officials said. Researchers were able to cut some rope from the two whales that remain entangled but not all of it.
NOAA and its various partners have preliminarily identified the gear removed from one of the animals as Canadian lobster gear – likely picked up during annual spring and summer feeding off New England and Canada. Scientists are trying to determine where the other entangled whales picked up gear.
Environmental groups say the entanglements are an obvious sign that more needs to be done to save the giant marine mammals.
Said Vicki Cornish, vice president for marine wildlife conservation at the Ocean Conservancy: “With only about 400 of these whales left on Earth, each loss brings the species a step closer to extinction – and we have the responsibility and ability to change the fate of this species.”