On Thursday Sept. 22, a group of recreational boaters reported an entangled North Atlantic right whale north of Cape Cod off Stellwagen Bank.

The deceased right whale was transported by flatbed truck for autopsy. Photo courtesy Benson Farm.It would be the first of three right whale interactions in three days in northern New England.

That whale was reported to be towing hundreds of feet of line and buoys from its upper jaw. The Center for Coastal Studies that day launched a response that included removing more than 200 feet of line. The whale appeared to be doing well after the removal of line but is now in the Gulf of Maine, and researchers are attempting to track its recovery.

On Saturday, a badly decomposed right whale carcass was spotted about 8 miles off Mount Desert Rock (roughly 100 miles northeast of Portland, Maine). This one showed no signs of external injuries or entanglement.

Under cover of darkness later that night, the Maine Marine Patrol and local Coast Guard loaded a different deceased 43-foot, 45-ton female right whale onto a flatbed truck and hauled it from Portland harbor to a farm in nearby Gorham, Maine. The crew of a whalewatch boat out of Boothbay spotted and reported the whale’s location on Friday, Sept. 23.

On Sunday, a team of 20 researchers gathered at the farm to perform a necropsy on the whale with a thorough examination, documentation of the injuries and collection of tissue samples. NOAA’s members of that scientific team also recovered the rope that was found around the whale’s head, in her mouth and around both flippers to examine it and attempt to determine the cause of death.

In Maine’s state-managed lobster fishery, about 80 percent of the fleet stays within three miles of the coast, which is closer to shore than most right whale habitat. As a result, 70 percent of those inshore lobster grounds are exempted from federal regulations aimed at protecting right whales.

According to Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, it appears that the ropes found on the whale are much larger than those typically used by the state’s inshore lobster fleet.

NOAA spokeswoman Jennifer Goebel told the Portland Press Herald that although the whale was found in Maine, it could have become entangled in any part of its habitat along the U.S. and Canadian Atlantic coast. She had last been spotted in February off the coast of Florida, free of ropes.

The whale had been tracked for a decade as number 3694 and was estimated to be about 11 years old. Her relatively short life for a species that typically lives longer than 70 years will end as feed for future gardens in Maine. Benson Farm has a license to receive marine mammals for composting. The remains will be incorporated into the farm’s composting program for use in its Benson Farm’s Surf N Turf gardening products.

 

Jessica Hathaway is the former editor in chief of National Fisherman.

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