right whales

Entangled Right Whale, One of Last Breeding Females, Will Likely Die

The Marine Animal Entanglement Response Program for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown will try to find the whale and free her, but it may be too late

NBC Universal, Inc.

One of only 340 or so endangered North Atlantic right whales will likely die.

After an aerial survey last week, experts at the New England Aquarium say the whale, named Snow Cone, a female who had recently reproduced and added to the scarce species’ population, had become newly entangled in fishing gear and was covered in cyamids or "whale lice."

"She was moving so slowly, she couldn’t dive, she just sunk. She’s suffering. There is no longer hope for her survival," said Sharon Hsu, a research assistant with the aquarium who observed Snow Cone during the survey, roughly 15 miles south of Nantucket.

Snow Cone is one of the few remaining breeding females of the species.

The discovery of Snow Cone’s entanglement, which followed another recent entanglement, comes as New England's lobster industry and Maine politicians are embroiled in a faceoff with conservation groups and Seafood Watch, a sustainability program run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, that recently recommended consumers avoid New England lobster because of threats from lobster fishing gear to right whales.

"The politics involved, the policy involved, that cannot be brought to bear on her disentanglement," said Scott Landry, director of the Marine Animal Entanglement Response Program for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, which would have attempted to free gear from Snow Cone, had the weather that day been more favorable.

"Unfortunately, we couldn’t respond that day. We were at sea already and the seas along the outside coast of Cape Cod were already far too rough for a run south of Nantucket," he explained.

During a Monday interview with NECN/NBC 10 Boston, Landry noted that the recent "bit of a peak" in the right whale and lobster debate "does feel different" and is "stressful for our team" though, "we are doing our best to ignore that for the time being and try our best to get our job done."

"We are just trying to dour best at the end of the day to add this animal back into her population so we can try to keep the population afloat," he said.

Landry said his group would attempt to locate Snow Cone and disentangle her, and after ensuring human and whale safety, would try to look at retrieving the gear she was stuck in.

He believes it may be possible to determine where that gear came from, which could then bring this incident into the lobster and right whale conversation.

Maine politicians, including the state’s Gov. Janet Mills, and Sen. Angus King, have accused conservation groups and federal rule makers of using faulty or incomplete data and evidence in their decision-making on right whale conservation, all while harming Maine’s lobster industry.

The Maine lawmakers have cited a lack of right whale entanglements attributed to fishing gear from Maine.

Asked if Maine’s Department of Resources would monitor Snow Cone’s disentanglement, should a determination on where the gear on her came from emerge, a spokesperson for the agency said it receives regular updates from NOAA on disentanglements.

However, because federal investigators are continuing to work on Snow Cone’s case, there was nothing to respond to on this specific case.

Landry himself believes the images of an entangled Snow Cone are another reason to reduce fishing rope use in right whale habitats without scaling back how much is caught.

Ultimately, he sees a solution to the debate between the livelihoods supported by crustaceans and scare sea mammals.

“I’m pretty confident we can actually find a way of doing this while keeping coastal communities economically viable and keeping right whales from declining so quickly,” he said. 

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