Credit: Gina Lonati, University of New Brunswick

New England Aquarium scientists identify deceased right whale as 3-year-old female

Scientists from the New England Aquarium have identified a deceased North Atlantic right whale that washed ashore on Martha’s Vineyard as a 3-year-old female. The deceased juvenile, cataloged as #5120, was found near Joseph Sylvia State Beach on Jan. 28, triggering an investigation into the cause of death.

The New England Aquarium utilized photographic data from the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog to confirm the identity of the whale, and NOAA Fisheries was promptly notified of the unfortunate incident. The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare collaborated to secure the whale, which is currently undergoing a necropsy to unravel the mystery behind its untimely demise. Law enforcement officials also retrieved entangled ropes from the whale’s tail, turning them over to NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement.

The deceased whale had been observed entangled in fishing gear in August 2022 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada. Despite multiple attempts to disentangle the whale in early 2023 off Cape Cod, it was spotted again in June 2023 with its condition deteriorating due to the embedded rope.

Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, emphasized the ongoing threat posed by fishing gear entanglements to right whales and called for prioritizing preventive measures. Knowlton highlighted technological advancements, such as on-demand fishing gear, as crucial steps to mitigate the impact on these endangered species.

The tragic loss underscores the broader challenges faced by North Atlantic right whales. With fewer than 360 individuals remaining in the population, including an estimated 70 breeding females, the species is critically endangered. The 2023-2024 calving season has witnessed 17 documented mother-calf pairs, but concerns arise as two calves have disappeared, likely succumbing to adverse conditions, and a third, born to “Juno” (Catalog #1612), faces a precarious future with deep propeller cuts.

The decline in the critically endangered population has been a persistent issue since 2011, with entanglements in fixed fishing gear identified as a primary cause. Approximately 86 percent of right whales have experienced entanglements, emphasizing the urgency of adopting conservation measures. Over the past four decades, the New England Aquarium has collaborated with stakeholders to develop ropeless or “on-demand” gear and weak ropes as solutions to enable sustainable fishing practices and aid in the recovery of the North Atlantic right whale population. The loss serves as a poignant reminder of the critical need for continued efforts to protect these majestic creatures from ongoing threats.




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