Wednesday, July 14, 2010

{Press} Scientists say fishing gear killed right whale found off Cape May | Michael Miller | July 14, 2010

"A right whale found dead June 29 off Cape May was killed by entanglement in some kind of fishing or boating gear, federal officials said.

The adult male was towed to a Delaware Seashore State Park near Rehoboth Beach, Del., and a necropsy began soon after it arrived on July 1.

The results show the whale died from injuries it suffered after getting wrapped in gear, which came off and was lost while the animal was being towed to shore.

“It died from long-term entanglement. It was carrying the gear a long time. One flipper was severely damaged and there was damage to the head. It got sicker and weaker,” said Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Right whales pass New Jersey twice a year as they migrate between feeding grounds in Canada and waters off Florida where their calves are born.

The North Atlantic population is nearly extinct, making each of the estimated 325 to 400 surviving mammals critically important for the future of the species. These whales are especially susceptible to boat strikes and entanglements in ropes and nets that get caught in baleen they use to filter krill and shrimp.

The source of the gear was not identified, Frady said. It fell off when the whale was towed.

“This population does not seem to have had a substantial rebound. We are making progress, even though it’s slow. It’s hard to estimate because there are so few animals,” Frady said.

Researchers in Massachusetts are studying how a network of sound buoys might be used to steer boats around whales in busy shipping lanes.

The U.S. Coast Guard alerts boaters when it gets reports about nearby whales. But the sonar buoys could provide greater geographic detail to help commercial boats avoid the whales.

“For the most part, their habitats are very near shore for a whale. They’re living in the same area that boaters use. They don’t get out of the way of boats. We don’t know why that is,” she said.

Historically, whalers prized right whales because they swam slowly and floated when killed. But Frady said relatively little is known about the whales, especially the males that tend to cover bigger geographic areas.

Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, said a right whale was regularly spotted off local beaches years ago.

“We would get panicked calls from fishermen who were afraid the whale was going to beach,” he said. “They have an underwater map of our coastal waters. For many years you’d see the same right whale stopping at Ninth Street in Ocean City and scratching its belly on the jetties. It would do the same thing in Brigantine.”

Unlike other imperiled marine species that are on the brink of extinction because of unregulated fishing in foreign countries, right whale mortality is largely an American problem. This population is only found along the North American coastline.

“It is our responsibility and our problem,” Schoelkopf said.

Federal regulators have set speed limits for commercial ships in some areas and require modified fishing gear that breaks away to prevent entanglements. But Schoelkopf said enforcement is too lax.

And he fears the whales will encounter problems with the British Petroleum oil spill this fall when they return to Florida for the winter."

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