Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Right Whale in the Wrong Place

About 50 miles back we started noticing signs at marinas:  "This is northern right whale habitat."  The signs included instructions how to avoid collisions with whales. We thought it would be extremely cool to see a whale, but we knew we couldn't expect that in the shallow waters of the Intracoastal Waterway; these signs are meant to educate boaters heading out to sea.

But we DID see a whale in St. Augustine on Thursday, sort of.  Headline news in the local paper:  "There's a whale on our beach."

A dead whale.  Sad story:  An endangered Northern right whale, an member of a group with an estimated TOTAL population about 300 individuals. This whale, a two-year-old, 7-ton female, was found dead, eight miles out to sea, and towed to St. Augustine for an autopsy. 

The story gets sadder. The whale had lines from fishing gear tangled and embedded in the her mouth. That probably kept her from feeding; she was very thin.  And she'd been bitten by sharks; that was probably the ultimate cause of death.

Sadder still: Scientists know this whale.  They tried to rescue her a couple weeks ago, when she was first spotted, all tangled up.  They actually managed to sedate her--out in the open ocean, a novel and daring technique--so they could get close and cut some of the lines away.

According to a report from NOAA, the mess of rope that entangled the whale was "floating ground line, from some kind of a trap or pot fishery."  Back when we crossed the Gulf of Mexico, we had to keep a wary eye out for crab pots, to avoid getting the line that runs from the trap to a floating buoy tangled around our propeller.  Apparently whales run similar risks.

The report notes that NOAA Fisheries Service prohibits floating ground line in fisheries managed under the "Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan"--specifically to protect whales. But the line is still used in some international fisheries. 

Northern right whales spend their winters here, in the southwestern corner of the Atlantic ocean, but (like some birds) they migrate north in spring, to the waters off New England and eastern Canada. Who knows where this whale first got tangled up.

And how did this species get to be so rare?  The answer is in the name. Whalers back in the 1800s noticed that the thick coat of blubber kept it afloat after it was killed. So it was considered the "right" whale to hunt.

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