Endangered Right Whale freed from fishing gear off Georgia coast

The species remains at serious risk of extinction

Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources - NOAA permit #24359

Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources - NOAA permit #24359

Georgia wildlife biologists and other staff helped free an endangered North Atlantic Right Whale from most of the fishing gear it was tangled in late last month, a rare success story for a species facing the threat of extinction.

There are fewer than 350 North Atlantic Right Whales left, making them one of the rarest large whale species on the planet. The whales travel from their feeding grounds near Canada and the Northeast to the coastal waters off Georgia and other Southeastern states each year in winter to calve.

On January 20, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission survey plane spotted a 15-year-old adult male named “Nimbus” draped in fishing rope as it swam 13 miles off the shore of Jekyll Island. A team from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) responded and found the whale dragging an estimated 375 feet of synthetic rope behind it from its mouth, according to an agency incident report.

Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission with NOAA permit #24359

Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission with NOAA permit #24359

Responders were able to free the whale from all but one 13-foot segment of rope. DNR officials said they were confident Nimbus would eventually shed the remaining line on his own.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is analyzing the recovered rope to determine where it originated, but the DNR’s incident report said it was not consistent with equipment used by any fisheries active in the Southeastern U.S.

A human-driven decline

The news of the rescue comes near the midpoint of the whales’ calving season, which typically lasts from mid-November to mid-April.

So far this season, 11 new calves have been spotted, compared to 15 in the entire 2021-2022 calving season. A 12th calf was found dead last month beneath a pier in Morehead City, North Carolina.

While each calf is critical to the species’ survival, experts say the births are still likely not enough to reverse the whales’ downward trajectory caused mainly by population losses. Since 2011, the population of North Atlantic Right Whales has fallen precipitously from a peak of around 436 animals to an estimated 340 remaining today, with boat collisions and fishing gear entanglements the leading causes of death.

“(Right Whales) can’t calve their way out of this problem,” said Clay George, a veteran wildlife biologist with the Georgia DNR. “The whales need a good calving year, but more importantly we need to stop human mortality.”

Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute with NOAA permit #24359

Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute with NOAA permit #24359

Just last month, researchers spotted a 4-year-old female covered in fishing gear 20 miles off the coast of North Carolina. NOAA biologists expect the whale will eventually die from its injuries.

Climate change is also contributing to the whales’ decline, said NOAA spokesperson Kate Wagner.

As the planet heats up, ocean warming has outpaced the rise in air temperatures. And as Earth’s oceans absorb more heat, Wagner said it is likely shifting the distribution of the microscopic crustaceans the whales depend on for food. As they’re forced to travel outside their historic ranges for sustenance, the animals are at greater risk from human activity.

“As their prey moved, the whales began spending more time in areas with fewer protections from vessel strikes and entanglements,” Wagner said.

Boat speed limits still under review

To help stem population losses, NOAA is considering setting new speed limits in the ocean outside the areas where the whales have been known to congregate.

Current speed limits only apply to vessels over 65 feet in length traveling in certain seasonal management areas along the coast of the Southeastern U.S. and parts of New England, from Nov. 1 through April 30. The changes the agency is considering would expand the boundaries of those areas to include much of the East Coast, plus extend the amount of time they are in effect and apply them to all vessels over 35 feet long.

Several Georgia officials have pushed back on those changes, claiming they will harm commerce on the high seas.

Wagner said the agency is reviewing comments submitted on the plan last fall and will make a final decision later this year.

Right now, DNR officials said boaters in waters less than 30 miles offshore should remain vigilant and slow down to avoid striking whales. They also urged Georgians to report whale sightings by calling 877-WHALE-HELP (877-942-5343) or by hailing the Coast Guard on marine channel 16.

A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/