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September Right Whale Incidents

Allison  Ferreira
(978) 281-9103
Shelley  Dawicki
(508) 495-2378
September 27, 2016

North Atlantic right whales are the rarest of the large whales that occur in New England waters. Over the last few days, three separate right whale incidents occurred in our region. Two right whale mortalities were reported, and one right whale was reported entangled and alive. 

Entangled Right Whale:

Image of an Entangled Right Whale View slideshow Photo Credit: Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, collected under NOAA permit 18786. Description: Right whale #3823, an 8 year old female, swimming at a high rate of speed. One of the entangling lines is visible going over the blowholes and head. EntangledRightWhaleMain2.jpg

On Thursday, September 22, recreational boaters reported an entangled right whale to the US Coast Guard. The large whale towed hundreds of feet of line and buoys from its upper jaw. On Thursday, the Center for Coastal Studies launched a response, and removed more than 200 feet of line and buoys. The disentanglement team cut what they hope was a key line over the whale’s rostrum to help the whale shed the remaining gear. The whale has been identified as an 8-year-old female, #3823.

NOAA recovered the gear, and is analyzing it to determine its origin and, if fishing gear, whether it is compliant with large whale take reduction requirements. The whale is currently in the Gulf of Maine. Researchers are looking for the whale, weather permitting, and will reassess its condition when they are able to locate it. At that point, if the whale appears healthy and is shedding the gear, no further intervention may be required.

Dead Right Whale Reported off of Mount Desert Rock

On Saturday, September 24, we received a report of a dead right whale 8 miles off Mount Desert Rock in Maine. The whale is badly decomposed and exhibited no evident cause of death, such as external injuries or gear entanglement. Due to weather, it wasn’t possible to tow the whale in on Saturday. NEFSC whale researchers spotted the whale again on Monday, and conducted a complete photo documentation of the whale to assess condition of the carcass and aid in determining if a recovery effort and necropsy is possible. Because of the inclement weather conditions expected over the next few days and the whale’s state of decomposition, recovery of the carcass is not expected. NOAA Fisheries will work with its partners to assess the photo documentation further to determine if a cause of death can be determined

Dead Right Whale Reported off of Boothbay Harbor

Image of an Entangled Right Whale View slideshow Photo Credit: NOAA, collected under NOAA permit 18786. Description: This photograph was taken as the right whale carcass, recovered off of Boothbay / Portland, is being hauled out of the water at Portland Yacht Services on September 24, 2016, showing evidence of entanglement around the head and through the mouth. BoothbayEntangledRightWhaleMain2.jpg BoothbayEntangledRightWhaleMain3.jpg BoothbayEntangledRightWhaleMain4.jpg

On Friday, September 23, a whale watch vessel reported a dead right whale about 12-13 nautical miles off Portland, Maine. On Saturday, September 24, the whale was towed into Portland by Maine Marine Patrol and the Coast Guard, where it was then transported to a compost facility, Benson Farm, in Gorham, Maine.

On Sunday, September 25, a team of 20 researchers performed a necropsy on the whale. The necropsy team included representatives from Marine Mammals of Maine, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, UNC-Wilmington, IFAW, Seacoast Science Center, Pacific Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Fisheries, and New England Aquarium.

The whale had rope entangled around her head, in her mouth, and around both flippers. NOAA recovered the gear, and is examining it to determine if its source can be identified. At this time, we do not know the source of entanglement, but we will continue to investigate.

The necropsy consisted of a thorough external and internal examination of the whale, including skeletal components. The necropsy team documented the extent of injuries associated with the entanglement, collected life history information, and obtained tissues samples for histopathology analysis. The female whale presented with a thin blubber layer and other findings consistent with prolonged and chronic stress. The cause of death for this whale is determined to be chronic entanglement. 

The whale was 43 feet long, about 45 tons, and was an adult female, about 11 years old. She was identified by the New England Aquarium as #3694, a whale first sighted in 2006, and last sighted on February 12, 2016 off of Florida. She is not known to have had any calves.

The last published population estimate for North Atlantic right whales was roughly  500 individuals. Entanglements are a serious issue for this species, and are involved in a majority of human-caused mortalities.