The North Atlantic right whale that washed up on Martha’s Vineyard on January 28 was found with Maine fishing rope entangled and embedded in her tail. NOAA Fisheries announced that their analysis of the gear has purple marks consistent with gear marking requirements for Maine lobstermen.

The full necropsy report on North Atlantic right whale No. 5120 found chronic entanglements reports on February 2, thin body conditions, and deeply embedded rope. NOAA stated that the necropsy showed no evidence of blunt force trauma. Approximately 360 North Atlantic right whales remain, with fewer than 70 reproductively active females.

Researchers observed the 3-year-old female whale as a calf in 2021 and gave her #5120. In August 2022, #5120 was sighted again, entangled in fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. On August 31, 2022, this right whale was added as a severe injury case to the Unusual Mortality Event.

One section of rope with purple zip tie nub that was entangled on North Atlantic right whale #5120 at Martha's Vineyard. NOAA Fisheries photo.

“Multiple attempts were made to disentangle the whale off Cape Cod in January and February 2023. She was resighted still entangled in June 2023 in the Gulf of St. Lawerence, with her overall body condition declining as the rope constricted around her tail becoming more deeply embedded,” according to a summary issued by the New England Aquarium.

Patrick Keliher, the Maine Department of Marine Resources commissioner, and the critical policy, science, and enforcement staff went to Gloucester, MA, to inspect the gear and review NOAA’s findings. He shared in a statement that the gear was, in fact, consistent with Maine trap gear.

“This is very unfortunate- our goal is zero entanglements. Certainly, this is a rare event; in fact, it is the first right whale entanglement with known Maine gear since 2004. It is also the first right whale mortality with known Maine gear that DMR is aware of since the establishment of the Take Reduction Plan,” shared Keliher.

Maine DMR further shared that they have not concluded if the gear is consistent with state or federal waters gear, as the embedded rope found had no green marking. No buoy was collected with the rope, which could further help identify the gear owner and the potential precise location of the entanglement.

“The MLA is deeply saddened by the death of a juvenile right whale that NMFS has attributed to the Maine fishery. We know that entanglement in Maine gear is extremely rare. This is the first reported entanglement of a right whale in Maine lobster gear in 20 years and the first death attributed to the fishery,” the Maine Lobstermen’s Association stated.

“Maine lobstermen have significantly changed how they fish over the last 25 years to avoid entanglement and continue gear testing. The MLA will continue this important work as we review the data and evidence that NMFS has collected. MLA remains committed to finding a solution to ensure a future for right whales and Maine’s lobster fishery.”

The Maine lobster industry provides more than 22,000 jobs to the state of Maine and contributes more than $1 billion directly into Maine’s economy annually. The MLA will strive to proactively allow Maine lobstermen to continue fishing under current whale protection rules and ensure industry and species coexist.

The incident also highlights the importance of DMR’s work to understand better the North Atlantic right whale presence in the Gulf of Maine. DMR shared that their highest priority remains to collect robust data better to inform the characterization of risk in Maine’s waters. ­­­

“Maine’s lobster industry is the backbone of communities up and down our coast,” Congressman Jared Golden stated in a press release. “The death of this whale is unfortunate, but we have to be real about tradeoffs. I will continue to stand with Maine’s lobstermen in the face of any effort to use this incident to justify new mandates that would threaten their livelihoods and the foundation of communities that depend on this fishery.”


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Carli is a Content Specialist for National Fisherman. She comes from a fourth-generation fishing family off the coast of Maine. Her background consists of growing her own business within the marine community. She resides on one of the islands off the coast of Maine while also supporting the lobster community she grew up in.

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