By Beth Daley, Globe Staff
An unprecedented number of North Atlantic right whales have been found tangled in fishing rope this winter off Georgia and Florida – and scientists are searching where the marine giants that summer off New England may have picked up the gear.
An entangled right whale (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission under NOAA Permit #932-1489)
Normally, scientists report one or two entangled right whales in the Southeast each year. But this year, five have been spotted. While three were disentangled - the latest success took place yesterday as researchers carefully cut rope from near the head of a whale off Georgia - two other leviathans still have rope wrapped around them.
The rope is often lethal to the animals. As the whale becomes entangled, the line can cinch into their skin - even going so deeply to cut bone over time. While some whales appear to get rid of the gear on their own, many others carry hundreds of feet of rope for years, slowly dying as it becomes hard to feed, move or infection festers in the wound.
The five that have been found this year is “alarming,’’ said NOAA Fisheries Service biologist Laura Engleby. "…with each event we look for clues to help us understand more about why and where these entanglements actually occur."
In each of the recent entanglements, a large amount of rope was seen in or around the whales’ mouths – often more than 500 feet of line, NOAA officials said. Researchers were able to cut some rope from the two whales that remain entangled but not all of it.
NOAA and its various partners have preliminarily identified the gear removed from one of the animals as Canadian lobster gear – which means the whale likely picked it up during the species' annual spring and summer feeding frenzy off New England and Canada. The whales head south to give birth from mid-November until about mid-April. Scientists are now trying to determine where the other entangled whales pick up gear.
The news is depressing for many groups that work to protect the 300-400 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, in part because so much is being done to try and help them. A federal rule goes into effect this year that requires many lobstermen not to use "floating" lines between arrays of traps that can rise 25-30 feet from the seabed and snare whales. Instead, the fishermen will have to use "sinking" lines that lay on the sea floor. Massachusetts lobstermen have been using such sinking lines for several years.
Environmental groups say the entanglements are an obvious sign even more needs to be done to save the giant marine mammals.
"This is another signal that we have a long way to go in protecting these animals from fishing lines in the water, and we need more resources to understand this problem if we are going to solve it," said Vicki Cornish, vice president for marine wildlife conservation at Ocean Conservancy. "With only about 400 of these whales left on Earth, each loss brings the species a step closer to extinction - and we have the responsibility and ability to change the
fate of this species."
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