North Atlantic right whale spotted entangled, in poor health off coast of Nantucket

Reproductive female named Dragon discovered with buoy lodged in mouth

Dragon swims off the coast of Nantucket on Feb. 24, exhibiting symptoms of declining health.
Dragon swims off the coast of Nantucket on Feb. 24, exhibiting symptoms of declining health.
Northeast Fisheries Science Center/Peter Duley under MMPA permit#21371

BOSTON, MASS. (Feb. 28, 2020) – In a blow to the endangered North Atlantic right whale species, researchers conducting an aerial survey south of Nantucket earlier this week spotted a reproductive female named Dragon entangled in fishing gear and in very poor condition. The potential loss of a mother is particularly devastating to the species, which numbers about 400.

Researchers with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were conducting the aerial survey on Feb. 24 when they spotted Dragon with a buoy lodged into the right side of her mouth. Dragon appeared emaciated with unhealthy looking skin. The buoy is preventing her mouth from closing, which scientists at the New England Aquarium said is likely the main cause of her terrible condition.

Dragon entangled in fishing gear, lodged in and around her mouth.
Dragon entangled in fishing gear, lodged in and around her mouth.
Northeast Fisheries Science Center/Peter Duley under MMPA permit#21371

“She is extremely emaciated and gray, suggesting she may have been entangled and unable to close her mouth for months,” said senior scientist Amy Knowlton, who has worked on the New England Aquarium’s Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program since 1983. Knowlton said the orange patches around Dragon’s head, seen in aerial photos, indicate the whale’s skin is infested with orange cyamids, a kind of lice that focuses on areas where there is an injury.

Dragon is a 19-year-old female right whale who is well-known to the New England Aquarium team. She has given birth three times, first at the age of 7. That calf died of unknown causes within a week of its first sighting. Dragon went on to give birth again just two years later. Aquarium research scientist Philip Hamilton said that female calf seems to be doing well and is just reaching reproductive age. The third calf, born six years later in 2016, has not been seen since its birth year and has not yet been catalogued by the Aquarium’s right whale team. Prior to Monday, Dragon had last been spotted in Cape Cod Bay in April 2019.

“It is both sad and discouraging to see Dragon, a whale we have followed from her birth through to maturity, entangled and in such poor health,” said Hamilton, who manages the North Atlantic right whale photo-identification catalog. “The hope for this species rides on the broad backs of these calving females. I fear we will lose this whale just as she enters what should be the prime of her reproductive life.”

Right whale Dragon and calf
Dragon, in better condition, and her calf swim in the calving grounds off Florida in 2016
CREDIT: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit#15488

Knowlton said the entanglement could have occurred anywhere, illustrating the need to implement broad-scale changes to fishing gear quickly. Scientists with the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life have been studying sustainable fishing practices, including ropeless lobster traps and weaker ropes, in collaboration with fishermen to reduce entanglements in gear. The Aquarium has documented over 1,500 entanglements since 1980 and has observed a steadily increasing level of related severe injuries and deaths. In fact, 86.1 percent of right whales have been entangled at least once with more than half of them entangled twice or more, some as many as eight times over the course of their lives.

MEDIA CONTACTS:
Pam Bechtold Snyder, psnyder@neaq.org; 617-973-5213
Diana Brown McCloy, diana@teakmedia.com, 978-697-9414