Right Whale Death
NMFS Northeast Region
N E W S
Assateague Island , VA – A specially trained and equipped team of experts has examined the 25-foot long carcass of a young male North Atlantic right whale found washed up on the beach Saturday. The team took biological samples important to NOAA Fisheries and whale researchers, and collected evidence that may confirm what killed the whale.
This is the second confirmed right whale mortality this year. The first was a likely newborn spotted off Florida. Several attempts to relocate that carcass for recovery failed. Last year, there was one confirmed right whale death.
"This was a challenging response given the remote location," said Dana Hartley. Hartley is the regional coordinator of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network in the northeastern United States, and works for NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that organizes responses to marine mammal strandings such as this one. "The Virginia Marine Science Museum staff did an excellent job pulling together people and equipment to document this event," she said.
The animal was spotted by workers at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and reported to the Virginia Marine Science Museum (VMSM) in Virginia Beach. The Museum is the designated responder for marine mammal strandings in Virginia.
The response team included Mark Swingle, Sue Barco, and Wendy Walton of VMSM. The examination was led by Robert Bonde of the U.S. Geological Survey's Biological Research Division, Florida Caribbean Science Center in Gainesville, Fla.
Also responding were Ruth Ewing, a veterinary pathologist from NOAA Fisheries' Southeast Region; Darlene Ketten, an internationally known researcher with appointments at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Harvard University, specializing in how marine animals are able to hear and use underwater sounds; and Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium's Right Whale Research Project. Three NOAA Fisheries Enforcement special agents were also on scene, and are investigating circumstances leading to the death.
The U.S. Coast Guard provided equipment to help secure the carcass prior to the examination. Staff from the Assateague Island National Seashore (National Park Service) and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) also provided support and equipment at the scene.
The carcass had several deep cuts consistent with injuries resulting from a boat's propeller. There was no immediate indication that entanglement in fishing gear contributed to the death. According to field reports, the wounds were deep enough to open the abdominal cavity and thus there was little information gathered from organs.
The team measured blubber depth ( an indicator of feeding success), took skin samples (for genetic studies, including possible identification of the parents), and recovered the skeleton and other hard parts of the animal. These samples and other observations may also confirm whether the external wounds are the cause of death, or if there were other contributing factors or causes. A final report of the examination will include any findings as to the cause of death.
NOAA Fisheries provides coordination and oversight for the marine mammal stranding network, but the operations themselves are conducted together with various partners in the network, most of whom are volunteers. This response operation included more than a dozen people representing eight different federal, private, and university organizations scattered along the United States eastern seaboard.
North Atlantic right whales are among the world's most endangered large whale species, and number approximately 300. These whales are particularly susceptible to ship strikes and to entanglement in fixed fishing gear (such as gillnets and lobster pots), either of which can cause serious injuries and/or death. Right whales are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Present federal regulations prohibit craft of any kind from approaching within fewer than 500 yards of right whales. Ship strikes are "takes" under the law and are to be reported. Reports can be made to the Stranding Network Coordinator at (978)585-7149, or the U.S. Coast Guard. Anyone with information about events leading to this particular mortality can make a confidential report at (800)853-1964.
Northern right whales are routinely monitored by scientists using aerial and ship-based sighting surveys during times of the year when the whales aggregate. In addition, any qualified observer can report sightings through a Northeast regional sighting network. The whales calve off the southeastern United States during the late winter and early spring. During spring and summer, they congregate off Massachusetts to forage and spend much of the remainder of the year further north, in the Bay of Fundy.
An extensive effort funded by federal, state, and private sources has been underway in recent years to mitigate the dangers caused by fixed fishing gear and ship strikes. This includes maintaining the stranding network, an active disentanglement effort, a stepped-up effort to involve fishermen in reporting and standing by entangled and stranded whales, required fishing gear configuration and placement, research into "whale friendly" fishing gear, approach regulations, and an internationally endorsed mandatory reporting system for large commercial shipping traffic in and around critical habitat areas. This system provides mariners with known locations of animals in the area and cautions about right whale approach.