No trace of injured whale seen a few weeks ago on Georgia coast

Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, NOAA permit 18786)

Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, NOAA permit 18786)

Marine and wildlife officials have been unable to locate an injured whale spotted on Jan. 11 about 10 miles offshore of the Georgia/Florida line.

The 33-year-old North Atlantic right whale, a male named #1803, had blue fishing rope tightly wrapped around its tail, an injury that is considered life-threatening.

Attempts by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to attach a tracking buoy to the whale were unsuccessful. No additional searches are planned, but if the whale is seen again, teams from DNR and FWC will try to attach the buoy and disentangle the whale, said department officials.

“Based on the entanglement and what we have seen with whales that have similar entanglements, if it is not disentangled, it is a good chance the whale will die,” said Clay George, senior wildlife biologist with DNR.

Over time, the rope can get tighter and tighter until it becomes embedded in the tissue, George said. The whale’s tail, or flukes, does not have layers of blubber or muscle to prevent the rope from cutting into the flesh. Once it begins to cut into the tail, that can make it harder for the animal to move, or create the opportunity for infection, said George.

When the whale was last seen, its skin had already begun to change from black to gray, an indication that its health was declining, George said.

The animal most likely got entangled in the rope in New England or Canada, locations where fishing gear can remain in the ocean during this time of year, said George.

As warming waters have forced North Atlantic right whales farther north into Canada during the summer months to search for food, many end up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the outlet from which the Great Lakes flow from the St. Lawrence River into the Atlantic Ocean.

In 2017, 17 right whales died or were entangled in fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, leading the Canadian government to issue new fishing rules for the snow crab industry — a shorter fishing season, closed areas — designed to reduce entanglements.

The North Atlantic right whale was designated the Georgia state marine mammal in 1985 after researchers discovered the coastal waters of Georgia were also its calving grounds, which were previously believed to only exist in Florida.

It’s listed as a federally endangered species, and there are fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales in existence, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with fewer than 100 breeding females left.

In recent years during calving season, which runs from November to April, the number of calves born has fallen below average. Last season, there were six calves born, according to NOAA.

Since 2017, there have been unusual mortality events among right whales with 46 whales dead (32) or injured (14). Those numbers, representing 10% of the population, have outpaced births.

The leading causes of death or injuries to the right whales are vessel strikes and entanglements, about half of which go undetected, said George. “We are trying to reduce the human impacts that are killing them,” he said.

George said it would take about 24 calves born annually for the species to grow. So far this season, researchers have counted 14 calves, said officials at NOAA.

Government agencies from Florida up to Canada work together to track whale movements, particularly when whales are in trouble such as a mom/calf pair spotted in late January swimming south into waters they don’t normally visit.

Federal law requires a distance of at least 500 yards (or five football fields) from right whales, including boats, drones and paddleboards. Sightings of dead, injured or entangled whales can be reported to 1-877-WHALE-HELP.