caught in fishing gear found dead
Taken from the
Times Global Friday, Oct.22/99
BOSTON - The slow, agonizing
death of a female right whale entangled in fishing gear in the Atlantic Ocean
was a severe setback for the species, which is hovering near extinction.
But researchers conducting a necropsy of the animal
yesterday hope to salvage important clues from the whale about the failure of
the North Atlantic right whale population to recover.
"She died a long, slow, painful death," said Amy Knowlton, a right whale
research scientist at the New England Aquarium.
Knowlton risked her life in September to try and disentangle the animal - known
to researchers as whale 2030 - in the Bay of Fundy, where it had migrated after
being sighted off the coast of Massachusetts four months earlier, entangled in
the gillnet gear.
Whale 2030 had first been sighted off
Cape Cod nine years ago and had no known calves, although she was old enough to
On Wednesday, the whale was sighted dead,
floating off the coast of New Jersey. The next day, the U.S. coast guard towed
the corpse ashore to Cape May, N.J., where about a dozen researchers from
Maryland to Massachusetts began cutting apart the 13-metre-long creature
The fishing gear had cut through blubber on
the whale's back almost to her body cavity, exposing her shoulder blade and
nearly slicing through her right flipper.
"I knew this
whale would die, but hearing that it died really was for me an overwhelming
sadness," said Charles [Stormy] Mayo, a marine biologist at the Center for
Coastal Studies in Provincetown who spent 19 hours trying to disentangle 2030
from the fishing gear.
Whale researchers said there are
only about 300 right whales in existence. From the 11th century, they were
killed off by whalers who sought their thick blubber and baleen. By the turn of
the century, as few as 50 or 100 may have survived.
right whale population began to rebound in the 1930s, when hunting was outlawed
but its birth rate began to drop, said Knowlton. During the 1980s, the whales
increased at a rate of 2.5 per cent a year but then either stabilized or
declined, she said.
Scientists think the whales may be
suffering genetic problems, or from pollutants that harm their reproductive
systems. They may even be facing a shortage in their food supply.
One known danger to the right whales is human. The
creatures migrate from the coast of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to northern
Florida, along some of the world's busiest shipping lanes and commercial
The New England Aquarium estimates 62
per cent of right whales show scars that indicate they've been entangled in
fishing gear. Collisions with large ships have accounted for at least 16 of the
45 known right whale deaths in the last 30 years.
summer, a ship strike killed a grandmother right whale named Staccato.
Nevertheless, whale advocates are optimistic about the
species' prospects for survival.
Progress is being made
in understanding the whales' physiology, habitat and genetic makeup, Mayo said.
He has new ideas for methods to disentangle the creatures and others are
proposing different fishing gear that may be less harmful to whales.
"There's clearly an extra amount of focus coming to
right whales," said Mayo, who was attending a conference of about a hundred
right whale researchers yesterday.
"We're all operating
under the hope there is a possibility for the species to recover. "
Terry Frady, NMFS spokeswoman, said the bright side to
2030's death is the possibility researchers will find clues to why she never
As far as saving the whales, she
said: "We think there's progress being made."