There are less than 500 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. And now, one less: This weekend, one of the 45-ton creatures was found dead off the coast of Maine, completely entangled in fishing line — head, flippers and all.
This was not an isolated incident.
In late June, an endangered blue whale wrapped in fishing gear was seen struggling off the coast of Dana Point in Southern California. Rescuers were unable to extricate it before it swam away. And earlier this month, rescuers unsuccessfully tried to free an entangled humpback whale near Newport. Spotters say they believe the humpback eventually found its way free of most of the gear, though they're unsure if there's anything still trapped in its mouth.
While any kind of fishing gear can be lost or abandoned at sea, gillnets, crab pots and traps are the most common types that continue to "ghost fish" — entrapping marine animals like whales, seals, sea lions and sea turtles.
Last year, the West Coast saw 61 whale entanglements — a record number that is nonetheless likely to be broken this year. So far in 2016, there have been 60 reports of entanglements as of late September. Why it's happening is unclear. Researchers say there's more derelict gear in the water today, and more reported sightings, but population numbers and migratory patterns of whales have also shifted.