Friday, January 23, 2009

Conservationists Fighting To Save Entangled Right Whales

Another entangled North Atlantic right whale was spotted off the coast of Georgia this week. This is the third entangled right whale to be spotted off the coasts of Georgia and northern Florida since the beginning of December. During the winter months, the waters off the southeastern U.S. are a calving ground for North Atlantic right whales. In a typical calving season, only one to two entangled right whales are sighted over a five-month period.

An aerial survey team from Wildlife Trust spotted the entangled right whale Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. about 18 miles to the east of Brunswick, Georgia. It was immediately apparent to the survey team that the whale was entangled due to the large amount of gear around the whale’s head and trailing behind the whale.

“We could see from the plane that the whale was smaller, only about 40 feet in length, and yet it was dragging five body lengths of line behind it as it swam through the water,” said Patricia Naessig, right whale aerial survey coordinator for Wildlife Trust. The whale has since been identified as a six-year-old juvenile born in 2003. Adult right whales are known to reach 45 to 50 feet in length and can weight up to 55 tons.

As the aerial survey team tracked the whale, a boat based disentanglement team consisting of biologists from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Wildlife Trust headed out yesterday afternoon in hopes of possibly removing some of the gear from the whale.

Once the disentanglement team arrived on the scene, they quickly noted that there were multiple lines going through the whale’s mouth that twisted together on the left side of the whale’s head, with three trailing lines each extending about 200 feet behind the whale. Of particular interest was an orange buoy wrapped tightly into the entangling gear. If the buoy can be retrieved at some point, it will give biologists a better idea of where the whale first became entangled.

Just before sunset, the disentanglement team was successful in cutting off nearly 175 yards of synthetic rope approximately ½ inch in diameter. They were also able to collect a biopsy sample that may be used to determine the sex of the young whale. Additionally, a tracking buoy was attached to the remaining trailing line on the whale. The tracking buoy will allow for the whale to be located again for further documentation and disentanglement attempts.

“For now the whale appears to be in pretty decent condition,” said Clay George, a biologist with the DNR Nongame Conservation Section. “However there are significant cuts from the gear and it will more than likely deteriorate without further intervention.”

Last seen off the coast of Florida near Jacksonville, the case is being assessed by NOAA and other agencies to determine further action. An aerial survey team and boat based team from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) set out today from Florida to attempt to photograph the whale. It is hoped that further documentation of the entanglement will allow researchers to determine the best plan of action to help the whale.

“While we don’t know at this time what type of gear it is, we do know that it is consistent with what has been previously found on the other two whales this season and in the past,” George said. “More than likely we will find that it is not gear from the southeast.”

Previously recovered gear including lobster traps and long-lines has been traced back to the northeastern waters of New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.

“We are seeing right whales off of Georgia and Florida that have dragged lobster pot ropes over one thousand miles,” said Brad Winn, Program Manager for DNR Nongame Conservation Section. “A number of these whales are critically entangled, and will ultimately die from being wrapped and cut by the lines. This is a serious and chronic issue that needs to be addressed if this species is going to continue to exist.”

NOAA will be conducting an investigation going forward.

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