Right whale’s death likely caused by entanglement in Canadian fishing gear

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A new 8.3-million program is looking to retrieve the so-called “ghost gear” that entangle and kill marine life, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Elizabeth McSheffrey has more.

The death of a North Atlantic right whale found floating in waters off the U.S., coast in September was likely caused by entanglement with Canadian fishing gear, a necropsy conducted by the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society has determined.

The whale was a 40-year-old male, nicknamed “Snake Eyes” for the two bright white scars on the front of his head.

The whale was last seen alive on Aug. 6, entangled in fishing gear in Canadian waters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

A little more than a month later, on Sept. 16, the carcass of the whale was found approximately six km south of Fire Island Inlet near Long Island, N.Y.

READ MORE: Scientists await necropsy results on right whale found in U.S. waters

The remains of “Snake Eyes” were towed to land under the direction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a team of approximately 17 scientists and volunteers, led by Atlantic Marine Conservation Society (AMCS), conducted a necropsy.

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Working for five hours the team took measurements and extracted samples of tissues and organs from the severely decomposed whale.

The remains were then buried.

After weeks of analysis, the team was able to release its findings. “Snake Eyes” had multiple wounds wrapping around his head, both pectoral flippers all the way to the flukes.

“They (scientists) determined that the likeliest cause of death was entanglement,” Jennifer Goebel, a spokeswoman for the fisheries arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Canadian Press on Sunday.

Goebel said the necropsy found no evidence of blunt force from hitting a vessel. While the internal organs were “significantly decomposed,” no signs of disease indicated death from natural causes.

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No gear was found on its body but Goebel said scientists found wrap marks on the whale that matched what had been observed when the animal was last seen entangled.

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“They were able to find linear wounds that were wrapping the rostrum and pectoral flippers as well as wounds to the fluke, which is the tail,” Goebel said. “Those were consistent with what was documented while the animal was alive, as were the head wounds.”

Death from entanglements, she said, can be “rather gruesome” for marine animals.

“Animals can get severe cuts from the entanglements, it can limit their ability to forage, they can get infections from the cuts – it’s a very painful way to die.”

Research has pointed to entanglements with fishing gear and vessel-strikes as the leading cause of death for right whales.

READ MORE: Canada, U.S. must work together to save right whales from extinction, say advocates

This year saw eight right whale deaths confirmed in Canadian waters while 29 right whales have died in North American waters since 2017.

A report from Oceana Canada found that that species were named “right whales” because their slow swimming speeds and proximity to shore made them the “right” whales to hunt.

After being hunted to near-extinction in the mid-1900s, the species made a slight rebound, but its status has taken a sharp decline in recent years.

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Scientists estimate the species has a population of around 400 animals, with less than 100 of those being breeding females.

—With files from the Canadian Press