An entangled adult right whale found dead Feb. 27 off Myrtle Beach, S.C., is the 34th animal known dead since federal officials declared an “unusual mortality event” for the highly endangered species in 2017.

Catalogued by whale researchers as #3920 and dubbed “Cottontail,” the 12-year-old male had been sighted south of Nantucket, Mass., Oct. 19, 2020. At that time, a Center for Coastal Studies aerial survey team spotted the entangled animal among several other right whales.

The group sent out a response team that removed some gear from the whale and added a satellite buoy for tracking. The animal had a line over its head, exiting both sides of his mouth, and trailing for about three to four body lengths past its tail, according to a statement then from NMFS officials.

The whale turned up again off Florida’s Atlantic coast in February, still trailing a heavy line from its mouth, and on Feb. 18, NMFS and partner organizations — including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Blue World Research Institute, Marine Resource Council and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute — mobilized a team to search for the animal off Sebastian Inlet.

But poor weather grounded the search flight, and the whale disappeared again. Then last Saturday it was seen dead found dead 15 miles off Myrtle Beach.

“Due to the animal’s poor body condition and offshore location, teams mobilized early today to find the whale by boat,” according to a statement Sunday from NMFS. “They collected biological samples, placed a tag on the whale to continue to track its location, and removed ropes entangling the animal.”

The latest adult death follows the loss of two young right whales born during the 2020-21 calving season, which experts regarded as a welcome surprise with 10 young reported. The northern right whale is among the world's most endangered, with a population most recently estimated at just 366 animals. 

It also comes as NMFS is moving through the public comment process on its new lobster gear modification rules and biological opinion on right whales and the fishery. The agency is under the gun of a federal court order to come up with a new conservation plan by May 31, with intense pressure coming from the fishing industry and marine conservation and environmental groups.

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Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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