Entangled right whale dies off South Carolina coast

Published on
March 10, 2021

NOAA Fisheries has confirmed the apparent entanglement-related death of a North Atlantic right whale off the coast of South Carolina.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the North Atlantic right whale as “critically endangered” last year, making it one of the most endangered species on the planet. Currently, the species is experiencing what NOAA Fisheries calls an “unusual mortality event,” which has spanned from 2017 until current. In that time, with the death of the latest whale, 34 whales have died, and 14 are considered seriously injured.

Currently, less than 356 of the whales are estimated to survive today.

According to NOAA Fisheries, the whale – an 11-year-old male dubbed “Cottontail” – was first spotted as entangled on 20 October, 2020. Since that time, efforts to disentangle the whale proved unsuccessful, and it was found dead on 28 February.

“Due to the animal’s poor body condition and offshore location, teams mobilized early today to find the whale by boat. They collected biological samples, placed a tag on the whale to continue to track its location, and removed ropes entangling the animal,” NOAA Fisheries stated in a release. “This animal was spotted alive by aerial survey teams off Florida’s Treasure Coast a little over a week ago.” 

The death adds to the growing pressure from nonprofits and environmental organizations on the shipping and fishing industries to do more to prevent future whale deaths.

"These whales must maneuver through an industrialized waterway dense with intense shipping traffic and an estimated one million commercial vertical fishing lines in the water column,” International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Director of Marine Mammal Rescue and Research Brian Sharp said. “This journey to their feeding grounds, which the species has taken for centuries, is becoming a journey of no return.”

Cottontail’s death, the organization said, is an example of why vertical lines pose a threat to the species’ survival.

"Cottontail's demise is a perfect illustration of what we are trying to stop. No species can survive these types of injuries day after day,” IFAW Marine Campaigner CT Harry said. “We can attempt disentanglements and the like, but that does not solve the issue. We need collective action. We need 21st century technology to remove the threat of entanglement. We need an unwavering commitment to turn this situation around."

In the U.S., a federal judge has ruled that the American lobster fishery is violating the endangered species act due to its lack of action to protect whales, a ruling that resulted in the Marine Stewardship Council suspending the Maine lobster fishery’s certification and NOAA Fisheries proposing new regulations to avoid a complete shutdown of it and other fisheries.

That proposal by NOAA Fisheries has garnered pushback from Maine Governor Janet Mills, and discussions surrounding the potential regulations are ongoing.   

Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

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