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Right whale spotted tangled in fishing gear south of Nantucket is on death’s door, researchers say

Snow Cone is one of the last remaining reproductive female North Atlantic right whales.

Snow Cone, a North Atlantic right whale, was spotted entangled in fishing gear and in "extremely poor" health Wednesday. New England Aquarium

A North Atlantic right whale named Snow Cone was spotted by New England Aquarium researchers Wednesday tangled in fishing gear and in “extremely poor health.” The scientists say there is no hope for her survival.

The aquarium said in a news release Thursday that scientists with their aerial survey team were flying 15 miles south of Nantucket when they saw Snow Cone and took pictures of her latest entanglement.

Snow Cone on Wednesday. – New England Aquarium

Research assistant Sharon Hsu, who photographed Snow Cone during an entanglement sighting in 2021, said in the release that she was shocked by the whale’s decline in health.

“Eighteen months ago, there was hope that disentanglement efforts could remove enough of the gear and that would allow her to survive. Now, she’s covered in orange cyamids [whale lice],” Hsu said.

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“She was moving so slowly she couldn’t dive, she just sunk. She’s suffering. There is no longer hope for her survival.”

The aquarium said the scientists immediately alerted the Center for Coastal Studies’ disentanglement team, but due to the time of day and how far out she was, they could not respond immediately.

The disentanglement team is now on hold until weather conditions improve, the aquarium said.

Snow Cone. – New England Aquarium

Snow Cone, who was featured in the documentary film “The Last of the Right Whales,” is now entangled in rope from two different incidents, the aquarium said.

Her health has deteriorated dramatically since she was seen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, in July 2022, likely due to the entanglement making it difficult for her to migrate and eat efficiently.

This is at least Snow Cone’s fifth entanglement, the aquarium said. Her death, after at least 18 months of suffering, will also likely mean the loss of her lineage. Her first calf was killed by a boat, and her second calf, who was born while Snow Cone was entangled, has not been seen since April.

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“Bearing witness to the pain and suffering of this whale is gut wrenching,” senior scientist Philip Hamilton said in the release. “Even worse is the realization that, with her imminent death, we will have lost the potential of as many as 30 future right whales being added to the species.”

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Snow Cone’s rapid decline in health is indicative of the insurmountable energy drain caused by the entangling rope, the aquarium said. The heavy presence of orange cyamids, which indicate poor health and suggest the whale’s swim speeds are reduced, and the rake marks on her head mean “her death is all but certain,” the release says.

“We are watching one of the few remaining reproductive North Atlantic right whale females slowly die, and the deterioration and suffering that she has experienced is inexcusable,” Heather Pettis, an aquarium research scientist, said.

“ … The survival of this species demands that swift and broad actions be taken to prevent these events throughout their range.”

Pettis said in the release that more than 86% of right whales have been entangled at least once, and some right whales have been entangled as many as eight times.

Snow Cone, who was spotted with her fourth entanglement in March 2021, drew international attention in December 2021 when researchers in right whale calving grounds saw her with a newborn calf, the aquarium said. She was still entangled, with rope deeply embedded in her upper jaw.

Snow Cone was spotted with a calf in December 2021. – New England Aquarium

Snow Cone’s entanglement also marks the fifth whale spotted entangled in fishing gear in 2022, the aquarium said.

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Snow Cone’s suffering underscores the urgent need for changes to the fishing industry, it said. The industry needs to shift to using rope-less or “on demand” gear as the critically endangered species, which has an estimated population of fewer than 350 whales, faces extinction, according to the aquarium.

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