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The carcass of North Atlantic right

The carcass of North Atlantic right

The carcass of North Atlantic right
whale #1424 floating far offshore.

Photos: Canadian Department of
Fisheries and Oceans

Carcass relocated and tagged as winds strengthen

Boston, MA - March 29, 2007
One of only 400 remaining North Atlantic right whales was found dead of unknown causes in the Gulf of Maine on Sunday, March 25. Right whale researchers and government officials are keen to recover the carcass, which they hope can offer valuable new insights into this critically endangered species. All week, Canadian and U.S. maritime agencies have been working together to relocate and attach a satellite tag to the carcass and possibly tow it to land.

Early on Wednesday afternoon, the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Earl Grey was guided to the carcass, by an American NOAA Fisheries survey aircraft 50 nautical miles off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. The deteriorating weather made towing the carcass impossible. However, working in gale force winds the Canadian Coast Guard and a team from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans approached the carcass in a small boat and collected photographs, biological samples, and attached a satellite tracking buoy to allow the carcass to be tracked and, if possible, eventually recovered.

The whale, number 1424 in the New England Aquarium Right Whale Catalog, was seen floating dead by a routine aerial flight by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). No major trauma to the animal was immediately apparent although the carcass appeared to have remnant line in his mouth from an entanglement that occurred over five years ago. But unless the carcass is collected, cause of death cannot be determined.

“From a scientific standpoint, it is incredibly important that we have a chance to autopsy this whale on land,” said New England Aquarium senior right whale researcher Amy Knowlton. “This animal’s mouth was entangled in fishing gear for more than five years, and we know little about the chronic effects of that type of entanglement. With only 400 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and fishing gear entanglement one of the leading causes of injury and death for them, we need to do all we can to retrieve this carcass.” Despite its long-term entanglement, this animal had shown signs of improvement between when he was first seen entangled in 2002 and his last sighting alive in the fall of 2005.

New England Aquarium researchers have been tracking right whale #1424 since 1981, when he was first sighted as a juvenile in the Bay of Fundy, in between Maine and Nova Scotia, Canada. As he grew, he was a consistent visitor to New England and Canadian waters in the spring and summer. He also made occasional winter visits to the right whale calving grounds off Georgia and Florida, appearing there as a juvenile in 1985 and an adult in 1996 and 2002.

Whale #1424 was one of the older males in the right whale population, and was frequently observed participating in courtship groups. He appeared healthy and may have fathered calves, but genetic testing would have to take place before this can be determined. Several times, researchers were able to record him making what are known as “gunshot noises,” loud staccato sounds that may be related to territorial standoffs between males.

On February 12, 2002, researchers with the New England Aquarium saw right whale #1424 in Florida waters. He was free-swimming, but he had become entangled in hundreds of feet of fishing gear. Heavy synthetic marine line was seen trailing in and out of his mouth, over his head and looping across the back in several locations. It became clear that the problem was even worse when the team had a chance to study their photographs more closely. The ropes were seen entering and exiting his mouth in at least 16 places and some of the wraps were very tight across the head and possibly the flippers.

The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS), which has significant experience disentangling right whales, put together a plan to disentangle #1424. The whale was sighted several times between 2002 and 2004, but opportunities for emergency response to the whale were rare; the whale was either found too far off shore or was just too difficult or evasive to approach. Nevertheless, over time the whale began to shed much of the gear on its own.

At least half of all known right whale deaths have been attributed to human activities, primarily vessel strike and fishing gear entanglement. 2007 has not gotten off to a good start for this beleaguered species. In mid-January, a juvenile first seen entangled last fall was again seen off of Georgia and Florida but could not be fully disentangled. Later in January, a dead calf was found which appeared to have died during the birthing process. March has been especially busy, as an adult, reproductively active female was seen near Cape Cod with a severe gear entanglement and a two year-old calf in Cape Cod Bay was photographed with a ten foot propeller wound in its back.

Knowlton and other right whale researchers emphasize that government action is needed if the species is to survive. “Despite a much greater understanding of how right whales are getting injured and dying from human activites, the U.S. government has yet to implement effective policies to mitigate these events,” Knowlton said. “Effective policies have been developed but have been stalled by the upper levels of Federal agencies and Congress. This lack of Federal action could lead to the extinction of this species.”