An endangered North Atlantic Right whale was spotted with a newborn calf from the air in late April off Cape Cod, Massachusetts coast. The birth was cheered by environmentalists as the species was on the brink of extinction, and the calf was critical to the survival of the species.
Snow Cone had become entangled in fishing gear in March of 2021, and she suffered horribly from exhaustion and pain, dragging the nets that had become tangled around her head until she died in 2022. In December of 2021, she was identified by the raw and thicker skin near her blowhole off the coast of Georgia with a new calf; her last calf had died from a ship strike. The newborn entered the world with the risk of death from the same rope as her mother.
When first spotted in distress with even more rope around her, trained rescuers from the Center for Coastal Studies could free the whale by disentangling most of the hundreds of feet of rope from her body. She became even more entangled when rope once again engulfed her body. With her new calf at her side, it was decided not to attempt to remove any more rope as the rescue would likely kill the calf.
Snow Cone was seventeen years old, and she was the first known right whale to have carried and given birth while seriously entangled.
A few days ago, NOAA added 36 new deaths of what they call an Unusual Mortality Event. There is no mention of the loss of Snow Cone and her calf of unknown gender. They might be added to the UME later.
NOAA Fisheries is adding morbidity cases (i.e., sublethally injured or ill whales) to the ongoing North Atlantic Right Whale Unusual Mortality Event (UME) based on a new scientific veterinary peer-reviewed protocol. NOAA Fisheries and external experts in whale biology and health developed this protocol to provide a more complete picture of the North Atlantic right whale population’s health status and challenges impeding its recovery. The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species. The latest preliminary estimate suggests there are fewer than 350 individuals and 70 reproductive females.
These 36 sublethal injury or illness cases reflect vessel strikes, entanglements, and injuries or poor body condition of unknown cause. We are adding these individual whales to the 34 mortality and 21 serious injury cases in the UME for a more accurate total of 91 whales impacted by this event. To date, more than 20 percent of the population has been impacted by the UME based on the 2017 abundance estimate, which is when the UME began.
“These sublethal impacts, although not necessarily life-threatening, may be impeding health, growth, and reproduction of individual whales, and therefore recovery of the North Atlantic right whale species as a whole,” said Kim Damon-Randall, Director of the Office of Protected Resources.
Right Whales face over 1 million fishing lines that striate in the water column of their habitat in Canada and the United States. Oceana, an ocean defender, warned that ‘Right whales can grow to 16 meters (52 feet) and more than 63 metric tons, and these ropes throw down a gauntlet in front of them as they hunt for the copepods that are their primary source of food. These tiny, shrimp-like zooplankton shoal in some of the world’s most lucrative fishing grounds, and climate change has shifted the ranges of copepods and animals that fishers target, such as lobsters, making that overlap even more pronounced in some places.’
Using reproduction data instead of age has allowed researchers a clearer picture of the threat to females of breeding age.
The Macquarie University presser on their study on female reproduction was published on October 12, 2022.
"Our research found that of the estimated 142 female right whales alive in the population at the beginning of 2018, only 72 were actually capable of reproducing. This has certainly influenced the species' decline in recent years," says Mr. Reed.
"North Atlantic right whales live in one of the most industrialized habitats of any whale species. Due to the highly urbanized environment, biological and human factors have impacted the survival of the North Atlantic right whale including reduced food availability, vessel strikes, fixed-gear entanglements and a declining female population," says co-author Honorary Professor Robert Harcourt from Macquarie University.
The researchers also found that the "recruitment" of new individuals into the breeding portion of the North Atlantic right whale population has reduced following 2000, with females born after 2000 being half as likely to start reproducing compared to individuals born earlier.
"The evidence that females are not maturing to have calves is very disturbing, and the current trajectory for breeding females is shocking. But there is an important ray of hope in this analysis. If we can eliminate entanglements, then there's a good chance that the cohort of females who haven't started calving yet will do so. Then we'd have a baby boom," says co-author Dr. Peter Corkeron, Senior Scientist at the New England Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.
"It is always heart wrenching to consider the slow and painful demise of individual whales, such as Snow Cone, who has been entangled multiple times in fishing gear, including while calving. However, it can be difficult to connect how the loss of an individual, and particularly a breeding female, reverberates through the entire species," says co-author Dr. Leslie New from Ursinus College.
"This work does just that, showing how the continuing loss of reproductively active females, such as Snow Cone, coupled with the inability of other females to even enter the breeding population, has contributed to the species decline, and could potentially lead to their extinction within our lifetimes if serious action is not taken."
Though there is resistance from lobstermen and other fishing interests, other groups are working diligently to find alternatives to the vertical fishing gear threatening the Right Whale with extinction.
From Monga Bay:
For trap fishers like Kenney who go after lobsters, crabs, and bottom-dwelling fish, the vertical ropes connecting the trap to a buoy floating at the surface serve two critical functions. First, these “pot warps” allow fishers to haul up traps that (they hope) are full of their catch. Second, the buoys serve as signposts so other fishers won’t crowd the same spot, so fishing boats dragging nets or trawls through the area don’t ruin their gear, and so authorities can keep tabs on the industry. But these vital links between the ocean’s surface and its depths also present the most troublesome threat to right whales and other cetaceans.
In the past few years, a growing cadre of gear companies and NGOs have begun to work on systems aimed at minimizing or even eliminating the miles of vertical ropes in the water column. The systems typically work by letting fishers recover their gear remotely using an acoustic signal. Retrieving equipment from the deep in this way is something oceanographers, industry and the military have done for decades, according to Moore.
Several designs are currently in trial phases. In one example, which uses a phone or similar handheld device from the deck of a boat, fishers can find and return to their traps. When it’s time to check their haul, the acoustic signal sent from the handheld device activates the release of a coiled buoy line stored inside the trap.
In the Smelts system that Riels designed, a canister of compressed air triggered by the signal inflates a float and sends the trap shooting toward the surface.
At the moment, however, Kenney and other fishers who spoke with Mongabay say that the designs aren’t far enough along to fully replace traditional fishing methods.
“We’re still in grassroots, in my opinion,” he said.
As mentioned above, climate change has moved the feeding grounds closer to shore. In a world facing an extinction crisis, there can be only one winner, humans or wildlife. In Maine, the answer is clear.
In a news release, Maine governor Janet Mills, senators Angus King and Susan Collins, and representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden urged Seafood Watch to change its decision. They argued the organization has not presented enough evidence of the dangers caused by lobster fisheries.
“The recent decision by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to ‘Red List’ Maine lobster with scant evidence of impacts on right whales is a reckless piece of activism that will inflict substantial negative real-world consequences on an important and iconic industry in Maine,” wrote the Maine delegation in the release. “In a courtroom, we require evidence before convicting someone of a crime; but you are seeking to sentence Maine’s lobstermen with conjecture, assumptions, and guesswork instead of hard facts.”