A female North Atlantic right whale was found dead on Sunday with a rope wrapped around it off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., a rare event that had scientists worrying about the future of the critically endangered species with about 360 remaining animals.
The whale, thought to be a juvenile because of its size, had washed ashore Joseph Sylvia State Beach on the island’s northeastern coast with a rope tangled around its peduncle, the part that connects the tail fluke to the body, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a statement.
“It’s devastating to hear about another loss to North Atlantic right whales,” said Gib Brogan, a campaign director at Oceana, an international conservation group based in Washington. “This death is even more troubling when it is a female calf that could have gone on to have many calves of her own for decades to come.”
The death came during the four-month period that such whales give birth. So far, 16 calves have been born during the current season, Oceana said.
Among the North Atlantic right whales remaining, fewer than 70 are reproductively active females, researchers estimate. Entanglements have killed at least nine of the whales and injured 70 others since 2017, according to NOAA.
Scientists were waiting for the weather to improve so they could determine what caused the latest death and identify the specific animal. Marine experts will compare its genetic material and the patches of raised tissue on its head, known as callosities, against a vast library of genetic data from right whales.
North Atlantic right whales rarely wash up on beaches, making the carcass an unusual chance for scientists to study it and understand how to better protect the dwindling population, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, the executive director at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a nonprofit in Plymouth, Mass.
“It’s tragic,” she said. “But it’s also the sort of gold mine of opportunity to be able to examine the carcass and figure out what happened.”
The whale could not be immediately identified because it was found on its back, with the identifying patterns buried in the sand, she added.
North Atlantic right whales’ slow speed, tendency to float when harpooned and thick blubber — used in cosmetics, leather and soap — made them a frequent target for whalers for centuries. They were named for being the “right whale to hunt.” The hunting of the species, which began as early as the 9th century, continued until an international treaty banned the practice in 1935, when the whales were nearly extinct.
The whales usually live within 30 miles of the East Coast of the United States and Canada. Their habitat overlaps with shipping lanes and fishing lines, leaving them vulnerable to vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. Human activity is the leading cause of death for the whales.
Earlier this month, a different North Atlantic right whale calf was spotted off South Carolina with what appeared to be cuts from a boat propeller on its head. NOAA officials were continuing to assess its injuries.
When ropes wrap around whales’ bodies, it can slow them down, making it difficult to swim, feed and reproduce, scientists said. The rope could also cut into the flesh, causing life-threatening infections. Conservation groups have urged fishermen to use gear with less rope, called on-demand or ropeless systems, to protect the whales.