Critically Endangered Right Whale Gave Birth Entangled in Fishing Rope, Researchers Find
Wildlife biologists made a shocking discovery this month involving a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
According to The Associated Press, on Thursday, researchers performing an aerial survey spotted a North Atlantic right whale dragging fishing rope tangled around its mouth swimming with a newborn calf in the waters outside Cumberland Island, Georgia.
This sighting confirmed that the mother whale — which scientists spotted entangled earlier this year but couldn't free — gave birth to her calf while trapped in the rope.
Clay George, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resource, told the AP that the newborn whale appeared healthy in the researchers' survey. This calf marks the second confirmed North Atlantic right whale birth during the species' current calving season, which typically runs from December through March.
Scientists are closely monitoring new North Atlantic right whale arrivals after announcing in October that there are only an estimated 336 of the whale species left in the wild. The North Atlantic right whale has seen a 30% population decline over the last ten years. The IUCN Red List classifies North Atlantic right whales as "critically endangered," a species damaged by the commercial whaling of the past and currently threatened by ship collisions and fishing equipment entanglements.
The mother of the calf observed on Thursday has been dragging fishing rope in her mouth at least since March, when officials first reported the animal as entangled. This initial sighting occurred in Cape Cod Bay, off the coast of Massachusetts. During the March encounter, wildlife experts managed to shorten the rope before the whale swam south for calving season but could not entirely free the animal. The mother whale was identified Thursday by her unique head markings.
"We haven't seen a chronically entangled whale come down here from up north and have a calf," George told AP. "It's amazing. But on the other hand, it could ultimately be a death sentence for her."
Dragging the rope, nursing her calf, and healing from injuries caused by the entanglement could prove too much for the mother whale. The calf is also at risk since there is a chance the newborn could get tangled in the ropes dangling from its mother's mouth.
Trained responders in a boat approached the mother whale and calf on Thursday to determine if experts could free the mature whale from the remaining rope. Experts deemed the situation too unsafe, for both humans and whales, to attempt. Researchers, who check the right whale's migratory water daily during calving season, plan to keep an eye on the mother and calf.