Experts Say There’s ‘No Longer Hope’ for Endangered Mother Whale Tangled in Fishing Gear

by Craig Garrett
Several male southern right whales chasing after one female to try and mate with her, Nuevo Gulf, Valdes Peninsula, Argentina. - stock photo

Scientists believe that a North Atlantic right whale currently entangled in fishing gear for the fifth time is “all but certain” to die. According to a Sept. 22 press release from the New England Aquarium, Snow Cone, the whale, is trapped in “heavy” fishing gear for at least her fifth time. On September 21st, the aquarium’s aerial survey team discovered the tangled whale when flying south of Nantucket, Massachusetts.

In addition to the new gear found on the whale, the team also identified fishing gear that the mother whale became entangled in before December 2021. Around this time, Snow Cone gave birth while she was entangled in fishing rope. The gear is still stuck to her body, People reports.

As Snow Cone’s jaw was slowly opened, the long fishing rope was deeply embedded. Rescuers began efforts to remove it in order to improve her chances of survival. They were able to remove a few feet of the rope, but they were unable to free her completely.

Snow Cone’s first calf was killed by a boat, and the second one born during her entanglement has not been seen since April. Scientists were worried about whether Snow Cone could effectively nurse the new calf in her condition.

Scientists were shocked by the whale’s decline

After last week’s sighting of the whale without her calf, the team took photos and made notes documenting her situation in case “potential disentanglement efforts” were needed. Sharon Hsu, a scientist who had previously taken pictures of Snow Cone, was surprised by how much her health declined.

“Eighteen months ago, there was hope that disentanglement efforts could remove enough of the gear and that would allow her to survive,” Hsu explained. “Now, she’s covered in orange cyamids [whale lice]. She was moving so slowly, she couldn’t dive, she just sunk. She’s suffering. There is no longer hope for her survival.”

The impact of the entanglements on the whale is further reflected by rake marks. The animal also had “heavy” concentration of orange cyamids — signs of poor health. While there was once optimism for her survival, Snow Cone’s death is now “all but certain,” according to the statement. According to the aquarium, Snow Cone’s case points to an “urgent need for dramatic changes to fixed gear fisheries.” This includes a quicker transition to ropeless or ‘on-demand’ gear.

Environmental policy consultant Andrew Werthmann wrote about the sad news on Twitter. “There are only 336 North Atlantic right whales remaining. Now another one, Snow Cone, has turned up entangled in ropes used for lobster traps. We need NOAA to step up and address this because without action right whales will go extinct in a few short years,” Werthmann wrote.

The North Atlantic right whale is close to extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. There are an estimated 350 or fewer of these whales remaining.