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Final Update on North Atlantic Right Whale off Virginia

January 31, 2018

January 31 Update

As part of the ongoing North Atlantic right whale Unusual Mortality Event investigation, necropsy findings were consistent with chronic entanglement as the preliminary cause of death. The final cause of death determination will be made available when additional diagnostic tests are completed, which could take several months.

January 28 Update

On Saturday, January 27, the tug Cape Henry Express was able to secure the right whale carcass and towed it to  the Virginia Beach area. The carcass was anchored offshore for the night and was towed to Little Island Park with assistance from a Virginia Beach Marine Police Unit.

Researchers performed a necropsy, or animal autopsy on Sunday, January 28. The necropsy logistics were organized by the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program, overseen by NOAA Fisheries. Researchers from Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program and University of North Carolina Wilmington led the necropsy team, which consisted of additional researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and NOAA Fisheries.

The whale was a juvenile female, and was approximately 39 feet long. She has been identified as #3893, a 10-year-old last seen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on July 29, 2017. At that sighting, she was gear-free.

The carcass was in a moderate state of decomposition. The necropsy team was able to collect samples for analysis. Necropsy results can several weeks to months.

Side view of dead right whale off VirginiaNorth Atlantic right whale carcass reported on January 22 off the coast of Virginia. Buoys and a satellite tag were attached by Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program staff aboard the charter vessel Game On with help from skipper Nolan Agner and first mate Chris Howlin on January 26. Credit: Alex Costidis, Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program under NMFS permit 18786-02.

The whale appears to have been wrapped in line in a manner that, based on past observations of entanglements, suggests the whale was alive and swimming when it encountered the line. Preliminary observations suggest that the whale died due to the entanglement. The lines have been removed from the whale for analysis.

NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement is investigating this incident.

Dead right whale next to charter vesselCharter vessel Game On with Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program staff aboard were able to locate and attach a satellite tag to the whale on Friday, Jan 26. Credit: Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA permit #20556.

After a devastating number of mortalities in 2017, the already critically endangered North Atlantic right whale is in crisis. NOAA scientists, resource managers, and partners are coordinating closely to solve this urgent conservation challenge. If you see a dead or distressed whale, call NOAA's marine animal stranding hotline at 866-755-6622 or your local stranding network immediately.

January 26 Update

At noon today, a Coast Guard C130 was able to locate the right whale carcass. Charter vessel GAME ON with Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program staff aboard, along with assistance from the NOAA twin otter plane, were then able to locate and satellite tag the carcass. The tag will allow us to track the carcass and send a vessel out to tow it back to shore for necropsy over the next couple of days as weather permits. Will update with more info and photos as we get them..

Mariners, please remember to slow down and look for right whales in this area. The voluntary slow speed zone is in effect through February 7.

January 25 Update

Dead North Atlantic Right Whale

We are investigating a report of a dead North Atlantic right whale off the coast of Virginia/North Carolina on Monday, January 22.

The Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program received notification of the whale, along with a photo of the carcass, on the evening of Wednesday, January 24. The whale has been positively identified as a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), and appears to be wrapped in line in a manner that, based on past observations of entanglements, suggests the whale was alive and swimming when it encountered the line.

NOAA Fisheries requested a drift analysis from the Coast Guard to determine where the carcass might be, and to determine whether the whale can be towed to shore and necropsied. At this point, we are not able to confirm the whale’s sex or match its identity with the photo-id catalog of known individuals that scientists maintain for the population.

This is the first reported mortality of a North Atlantic right whale in 2018.

New Dynamic Management Area

Shortly after receiving the report of the dead right whale, we were alerted to the presence of four live right whales in the same general area, prompting the establishment of a voluntary vessel speed restriction zone (Dynamic Management Area or DMA). The DMA has been established 86 nm east-southeast of Virginia Beach, VA to protect the aggregation of right whales sighted in this area by a U.S. military ship on January 23, 2018. 

This DMA is in effect immediately through February 7.

Mariners are requested to route around this area or transit through it at 10 knots or less.

East-Southeast of Virginia Beach, Virginia DMA -- in effect through February 7, 2018

36 54 N
36 12 N
074 47W
073 55 W

2017 Was a Devastating Year for Right Whales

The year 2017 was devastating for North Atlantic right whales, which suffered a loss of 17 whales--about 4 percent of their population--an alarming number for such a critically endangered species with a population currently estimated at about 450 animals.

Of the 17 dead whales, 12 were found in Canadian waters and 5 were found in U.S. waters. The whales in Canada were discovered in the  Gulf of St. Lawrence between June and September. Canadian officials performed necropsies on seven of these whales, and found that five died to blunt force trauma (often associated with vessel strikes) and two died due to entanglements from fishing gear.

Of the five dead right whales found in U.S. waters in 2017, all were found in waters off the coast of Massachusetts. One (a young calf) was confirmed to have died of blunt force trauma. We were unable to determine a cause of death for the other four (all adults) because they were in advanced states of decomposition.

There are currently only about 100 females of breeding age in the population and more females seem to be dying than males. Births have also been declining in recent years, and to date, no new calves have been spotted in the calving grounds off Florida this year.

In August 2017, NOAA Fisheries declared the increase in right whale mortalities an “Unusual Mortality Event,” which helps the agency direct additional scientific and financial resources to investigating, understanding, and reducing the mortalities in partnership with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and outside experts from the scientific research community.

Taking Action to Protect Right Whales

While the North Atlantic right whale population has increased since we began our recovery efforts more than two decades ago, this most recent decline and the large number of recent mortalities are a serious concern, and reminds us that we still have a long way to go to recover this species. Read more about our Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, our Large Whale Disentanglement Program, and our Ship Strike Reduction program,  which has helped reduce serious injuries and mortalities caused by vessel strikes. Find out about the actions we are currently taking to help right whales.

Next month, the first meetings of two Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team subgroups investigating the feasibility of ropeless gear and whale-release rope and gear marking will be convened. John Bullard’s (former Regional Administrator for the Greater Atlantic Region) guest column, which begins on page three of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association January Newsletter, provides context on the challenges and urgency surrounding this and our other efforts.

On Tuesday, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced four measures for the snow crab fisheryin the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence to protect North Atlantic right whales from entanglement. These measures complement several measures in place in the U.S., including gear marking for trap/pot gear and reducing the amount of floating rope on the water’s surface.

Report a Stranded Marine Mammal

If you see or have any information about a stranded marine mammal, please report it to our stranding hotline 866-755-NOAA (6622) or to your local stranding response organization.