Entangled whale off Georgia coast partially freed

Rescuers cut away most of 100-yard fishing rope

A North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing rope off the coast of Georgia has a better chance of survival thanks to rescue efforts, officials said Thursday.

The 4-year-old male, one of only an estimated 450 right whales remaining in the wild, was spotted swimming off the coast of Jacksonville trailing more than 100 yards of 11/16-inch fishing rope, said a press release from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

On Feb. 17, biologists from the DNR and Florida's Fish and Wildlife Commission worked to free the whale about 40 miles off the coast between St. Simons Island and Sapelo Island.

"Most" of the rope was cut loose, said the Georgia DNR in a press release.

Rescuers could not remove all of the rope because the whale avoided the biologists' boats and because the rope is likely entangled in the whale's baleen – the filter-feeding structures inside the mouths of baleen whales.

It is hoped the whale known to researchers as "No. 4057" will shed the rest of the rope on its own. The animal's fate won't be known until, or unless, he is seen again, said the press release.

"Judging from its wounds, I suspect this whale had been hauling that rope for weeks or longer," said biologist Clay George, who heads right whale research for Georgia DNR. "It’s impossible to know if he’ll survive, but at least we gave him a fighting chance."

The North Atlantic right whale, the only whale native to Georgia waters, became the state's official marine mammal in 1985. 

The creatures, which can grow up to 59 feet in length, are often entangled in fishing nets and ropes. More than 80 percent of North Atlantic right whales bear scars from rope entanglements, and almost 60 percent have been entangled twice, researchers said.

Right whales, the third largest after blue and finback whales, are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. 

The species was decimated by commercial whaling in the late 1800s and less than 100 breeding females remain.

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