Scientists with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources observed an endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing rope while swimming with a newborn calf on Thursday, but were unable to safely remove the rope.
The calf appeared healthy and uninjured, according to Clay George of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
“My concern is [the mother has] still got two pieces of rope, about 20 feet, coming out from the left side of her mouth,” George stated. “If those two pieces of rope ended up getting knotted around each other and there’s a loop, you could image that calf could end up becoming entangled.”
The whales were discovered by an aerial team near Cumberland Island, Georgia. Despite the fact that trained responders approached them by boat on Thursday, they determined that removing or shortening the rope would be dangerous.
Experts have confirmed that the mother whale has been dragging this rope since it was first reported entangled in Cape Cod Bay in March, based on markings on its head. They were able to shorten the rope to its current length of 20 feet at the time, but they were unable to completely remove it.
According to the Associated Press, there are only about 350 North Atlantic right whales left, having been nearly wiped out during the heyday of commercial whaling.
During the species’ calving season, which runs from December to March, it was the second newborn right whale confirmed in the Atlantic waters of the Southeastern United States.
Each winter, adult female right whales migrate to warmer waters off the coasts of Georgia and Florida to give birth. George said he’s only aware of one other confirmed report of an entangled right whale seen with a newborn, which occurred in January 2011 and was eventually freed.
“We haven’t seen a chronically entangled whale come down here from up north and have a calf,” George went on “It’s amazing. But on the other hand, it could ultimately be a death sentence for her.”
That’s because, according to George, the mother whale may struggle to nurse her calf while also trying to recover from potential mouth injuries while dragging the fishing line.
Female right whales gorge themselves in the waters off New England and Canada where they feed and mate before heading south to give birth. They won’t eat again until they return, which could take up to three months.
During the calving season, spotters who scan the waters daily for whales and their calves plan to keep an eye out for the pair.
In October, scientists and advocates with the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium said they believe the marine mammals lost nearly 10% of their population last year, bringing the total number to 336.
According to scientists, right whales are being killed faster than they can reproduce due to entanglement with fishing gear and collisions with ships.