By RUSS BYNUM, Associated Press
SAVANNAH, Ga (AP) – Scientists have spotted an endangered right whale dragging a length of fishing rope stuck in its mouth as it swam with a newborn off the coast of Georgia, a rare confirmation of a birth by a tangled whale that experts have determined they cannot safely attempt to help.
The baby whale appeared healthy and unharmed when an aerial survey team spotted it Thursday alongside its trapped mother near Cumberland Island, Ga., Said Clay George, a wildlife biologist at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
It was the second newborn right whale confirmed to be in the Atlantic waters of the southeastern United States during the species’ calving season, which typically runs from December to March.
North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with scientists estimating fewer than 350 surviving. Adult females migrate to the warmer waters off Georgia and Florida each winter to give birth. George said he was only aware of another confirmed report, from January 2011, of an entangled right whale seen with a newborn baby – and that one of them eventually managed to get away. to free.
The female whale spotted last week, identified by the unique markings on its head, has been dragging a fishing rope since at least March. It was then that it was first reported entangled in Cape Cod Bay, off the coast of Massachusetts. Wildlife experts were able to shorten the rope before the whale headed south, but were unable to free it.
âWe haven’t seen a chronically entangled whale come down here from the north and have a calf,â said George, adding: âIt’s amazing. But on the other hand, it could end up being a death sentence. for her.
That’s because the mother whale may have trouble nursing her calf and still have the energy to keep dragging the fishing line while trying to recover from potential mouth injuries, George said. Female right whales typically force-feed in the waters where they feed and mate off New England and Canada before heading south to give birth. They won’t eat until they return – a round trip that can take three months or more.
Responders trained in a boat approached the mother whale and her calf on Thursday. After consulting with other experts, said George, the response team concluded that any attempt to remove or further shorten the fishing rope would pose too great a risk to the whales and the boat’s crew.
Watchers who scan the waters daily for whales and their babies during calving season plan to keep an eye on the pair.
“What worries me is that she still has two pieces of rope, about 20 feet long, sticking out from the left side of her mouth,” said George. “If those two pieces of rope ended up knotting and there was a loop, you might imagine that the calf might end up tangling.”
Scientists and advocates from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium said in October that they suspected marine mammals had lost nearly 10% of their population last year, with their total numbers dropping to around 336.
Right whales were decimated during the days of commercial whaling, when they were hunted for their oil. Now scientists say entanglement with fishing gear and collisions with ships are killing right whales faster than they can reproduce.
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