Federal officials called for a 10-knot speed limit off the coast of southeast Virginia after another northern right whale was found dead, the first 2018 casualty for the critically endangered species.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration established two “dynamic management areas” off Virginia, after a Navy ship reported a sighting of right whales Jan. 23 and Jan. 31 after the dead whale, apparently a victim of fishing gear entanglement, was recovered. Mariners are requested to route around the areas, or transit at 10 knots or less, through Feb. 7.
The Virginia incident comes after what NOAA officials and scientists call a “devastating” 2017 year for the North Atlantic right whale population, with 17 animals found dead — about 4% of the total population estimated at around 450 animals.
A dozen whales turned up dead in Canadian waters between June and September, plus five in U.S. waters. The whales in Canada were all found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and investigators determined that of seven animals recovered, five were killed by blunt force trauma — likely ship strikes — and two from entanglement in fishing gear.
Five dead whales were found off Massachusetts, with one young calf a victim of blunt force trauma. NOAA officials said a cause of death could not be determined for the other four because the carcasses were too decomposed.
In the Virginia incident, a 10-year-old, 39' juvenile female was entangled in fishing line when it was first spotted offshore Jan. 22. A Coast Guard C-130 air crew located the dead whale at noon Jan. 26, and a team of experts from the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program and NOAA reached the location that day on the charter vessel Game On, assisted by a NOAA-chartered Twin Otter aircraft. The team attached buoys and a satellite tag.
On Jan. 27 the 48’x14’x5’ Cape Henry Express from Cape Henry Launch Services, Virginia Beach, Va., secured the carcass and towed it to the Virginia Beach area, where it was anchored overnight. The next day it was moved to Little Island Park with assistance from the Virginia Beach Marine Police Unit, and researchers performed a necropsy to help determine the cause of death.
Those results could take weeks or months, after tissue samples are analyzed. Like many individuals in the closely monitored northwest Atlantic right whale population, the animal was known to scientists and had last been noted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on July 29, 2017. It had no entanglement at that sighting, NOAA officials said.
Scientists say the 2017 losses are especially alarming in light of trends in the population, which was driven near extinction by commercial whaling by the beginning of the 20th century.
There are now only about 100 females of breeding age in the population, and females appear to be dying more frequently than males. Meanwhile, births have been declining, and by the end of January no new calves had been seen on the right whale birthing grounds off Florida, according to NOAA.