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Right whale 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.
    Ms. 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 reproduce.
    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 yesterday.
    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.
    The 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 fishing grounds.
    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.
    Last 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 apparently reproduced.
    As far as saving the whales, she said: "We think there's progress being made."

Canadian Press

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