Endangered Whale Off Georgia Coast Partially Freed

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A young North Atlantic right whale is swimming easier after wildlife biologists cut away most of the 100-plus yards of heavy fishing rope the animal was dragging.

The disentanglement effort, much of which occurred 40 miles off Georgia’s Wolf Island Monday, was relatively quick for the four-year-old male whale, one of only about 450 remaining North Atlantic right whales.

Directed to the whale by an aerial survey team and a satellite tracking buoy monitored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), authorized staff with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission assessed the entanglement and threw a device called a cutting grapple across the trailing rope. Seconds later, the thick rope parted.

But responders could not remove all of the rope because the whale avoided the boats and because the rope is likely entangled in its baleen – the filter-feeding structures inside the mouths of baleen whales.

The hope is the whale known to researchers as No. 4057 will shed the rest of the rope on its own. Some North Atlantic right whales have; some haven’t. Responders won’t know No. 4057’s fate until, or unless, he is seen again. Entanglement in commercial fishing gear is one of the leading causes of death and injury for North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species and one of world’s most imperiled whales.

Wildlife biologist Clay George, who heads right whale research for Georgia DNR, said No. 4057 has severe injuries on his head and flukes. Those wounds and the fact that the whale is still partially entangled highlight the need to prevent entanglements.

“Disentanglement can’t save every whale,” Mr. George said. “The focus must be on prevention.”

More than 80 percent of North Atlantic right whales bear scars from rope entanglements, and almost 60 percent have been entangled twice.

Entanglement is a chronic problem for the species, said Barb Zoodsma, NOAA Fisheries’ coordinator of right whale recovery efforts in the Southeastern U.S. “Most entanglements occur in gillnet and trap/pot gear that is left to soak in the water unattended for long periods.”

NOAA Fisheries formed the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team in 1996 to reduce injury and death of right, fin and humpback whales from fishing gear. While progress has been made, entanglement rates remain high, especially for critically endangered right whales.

North Atlantic right whales swim from Canada and New England each year to bear their young in the Southeast’s warmer waters. Agencies including the DNR, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and NOAA monitor whales, respond to injured, entangled or dead whales, collect genetic samples for research and protect right whale habitat.

University of North Carolina Wilmington researchers conducting an aerial survey for the U.S. Navy spotted right whale No. 4057 off Jacksonville, Fl., on Sunday. A Duke University boat team also doing research for the Navy attached a suction cup-mounted tag to temporarily track the whale's movements while FWC biologists were en route. The biologists removed more than half of the 11/16-inch diameter, lead-weighted rope and attached a satellite tracking buoy to the remaining rope so the whale could be relocated the next day.

“Coordination between research teams is essential during these types of events,” said Katie Jackson, an FWC wildlife biologist. “Because the whale was found late in the day, we had a narrow window of time to assess the whale’s condition and its entanglement and decide on a course of action.”

An FWC aerial survey team relocated the whale 40 miles east of Wolf Island on Monday morning. The whale had covered 60 miles in less than 17 hours. A team of DNR and FWC biologists worked from boats to remove most of the remaining rope.

It’s not known where the rope came from or the specific type of fishing it had been used for. “Judging from its wounds, I suspect this whale had been hauling that rope for weeks or longer,” Mr. George said. “It’s impossible to know if he’ll survive, but at least we gave him a fighting chance.”

North Atlantic right whales are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The species was decimated by commercial whaling in the late 1800s.

Since whaling was banned in 1935, the recovery of North Atlantic right whales has been limited by mortality from ship collisions and entanglement in commercial fishing gear. While the population is increasing at an annual rate of 2.7 percent, there are still fewer than 100 breeding females left.

The public is encouraged to report sightings of dead, injured or entangled whales by calling 1-877-WHALE-HELP (899-942-534357). NOAA’s Dolphin & Whale 911 app, http://1.usa.gov/1b1kqfv, can also be used to report marine mammals in trouble.

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