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On the Ropes:

The North Atlantic Right Whale's Fight for Survival

An entangled North Atlantic Right Whale swims along tending to her calf while dragging rope and fishing gear on both sides.
Right Whale and Calf North Atlantic Right Whale #3560, known as Snow Cone, swims with her calf. Snow Cone shows obvious signs of entanglement 10 nautical miles off the coast of Cumberland Island. © Georgia Wildlife Resources Division

At first glance, an aerial image captured recently of a North Atlantic right whale and her calf swimming off the shores of Georgia is a heart-warming sight. This majestic marine mammal, that can reach up to 52 feet in length when fully mature, is one of the most endangered whales in the world.

At closer inspection, it is clear that the mother is entangled in fishing rope.

The fact that she was still able to migrate south 1,000 miles and calve successfully is a minor miracle.

Clay George Senior Wildlife Biologist, Georgia Department of Natural Resources
A North Atlantic Right Whale is seen entangled as it surfaces to take a breath.
Entangled Right Whale An entangled North Atlantic right whale breaks the surface to take a breath. Fishing gear and rope can be seen on its back. © Georgia Wildlife Resources Division

An entangled North Atlantic right whale breaks the surface to take a breath. Fishing gear and rope can be seen on its back.

“Our colleagues in New England and Canada cut over 100 yards of rope off of her last year, but they weren’t able to remove it entirely. The fact that she was still able to migrate south 1,000 miles and calve successfully is a minor miracle,” explains Clay George, Senior Wildlife Biologist at Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “Watching her calf swim in and out of the fishing gear she is caught up in is heartbreaking and could still pose a serious threat to both.”

With only around 350 in existence, the Northern right whale was hunted to near extinction in the 19th century. The combination of its tendency to hug the coastline, travel near the surface of the water at a slow pace and its docile nature made it an attractive prospect to whalers, who all but killed off the species, leaving an estimated 100 by the turn of the twentieth century.

And although the species increased slowly but steadily after whaling was ended, the population has faced a sharp decline over the past 10 years, and has declined from 480 in 2011 to approximately 375 today, signifying a 20 percent decline.

A North Atlantic Right Whale is seen entangled as it surfaces to take a breath.
Entangled Right Whale This North Atlantic right whale has fishing gear trapped in its jaws. Rope can be seen stretching along its body and past its tail. © Georgia Wildlife Resources Division

This North Atlantic right whale has fishing gear trapped in its jaws. Rope can be seen stretching along its body and past its tail.

Humans remain the greatest threat to this beautiful and peaceful creature, with boat strikes and fixed fishing gear accounting for almost all non-calf deaths and serious injuries Another human impact, climate change, has exacerbated the situation.

“Historically, most of the whales spent the summer months feeding in the Gulf of Maine, along the U.S./Canadian border, but warming waters caused by climate change are pushing them farther north to the Gulf of St Lawrence,” said George. “This is a serious problem because there’s more vessel traffic and fixed fishing gear like lobster and snow crab.”

And the majestic creatures get little reprieve when they travel south to the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia and North Florida to calve. Two calves and one mom have been struck by boats off Georgia and Florida since 2020. And ship traffic from busy east coast ports poses a serious risk during southward and northward migrations.

Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and others are doing what they can to protect the whales on their calving grounds, with an education campaign focused on recreational anglers and charter captains to raise awareness about the dangers posed by boat strikes to both whales and boats and how to help prevent a collision.

NOAA is considering changing their vessel speed regulations to further reduce collisions along the U.S. East Coast. A host of regulatory and non-regulatory approaches are being used to manage entanglement risk from lobster and crab pots in New England and Canada, but so far these efforts are falling short. New fishing technologies known as “on-demand” or “ropeless” gear could all but eliminate whale entanglements in those fisheries, but significant investment will be necessary before the gear can be implemented industry-wide.

“There needs to be a sea-change in how large fixed-gear fisheries are managed, or the species could be facing functional extinction in a matter of decades,” says George. “The good news is that the North Atlantic right whale has proven to us in the past that it can bounce back and recover, if we give it the opportunity.”

TNC has been working to gather better data and map areas of the Atlantic vital to the Northern Atlantic right whale’s migration, feeding and calving. Our focus includes the Southern Atlantic Bight Marine Assessment, designed to empower stakeholders to develop strategies for long-term sustainability of the South Atlantic Bight’s ecological services, Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association Project, the Northeast Marine Mapping Tool and the Southeast Ocean Mapper, an online tool currently under development that will provide vital ecological information to help inform offshore siting of wind turbines and other human structures.

For more information, contact Mary Conley at mconley@tnc.org.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.