On World Whale Day, Consider the Unnecessary Deaths

By Lauri deGaris

February 18, 2024, is World Whale Day. And I am heartbroken to report that two young female right whales have died in the past two weeks along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. These two young victims died from the top two leading causes of right whale death — rope entanglement and vessel strike.

The rope that had entangled the right whale washed up on the beach of Cow Bay in Edgartown, Massachusetts.

On Jan. 29, a dead 3-year-old female right whale washed up on the beach of Cow Bay in Edgartown, Massachusetts. NOAA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare were dispatched to the scene. Officials have determined that rope recovered from the whale had purple markings used to identify trap fishing gear from fishermen in Maine.

The young female whale was first spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, entangled in August of 2022. Several attempts to free the whale were unsuccessful. Almost a year later, the young female whale was spotted again in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, showing signs of declining health, as the rope was deeply embedded around her tail.

“This young whale struggled to survive for months until she finally died near Martha’s Vineyard, wrapped in rope linked to pots and traps used by Maine fisheries,” Kate O’Connell said.

“North Atlantic right whales are at a tipping point, and the loss of this young female whale, known as whale #5120, is a tragic reminder of the risks posed by certain types of fishing gear to this critically endangered species, said Kate O’Connell, senior policy consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute’s Marine Life Program. “Not only does her death bring the species one step closer to extinction, but it also highlights how marine mammals suffer cruelly and unnecessarily from fishing gear entanglements.

“The Animal Welfare Institute hopes that this death will finally spur the fishing industry to quickly transition to ropeless (or ‘on-demand’) fishing systems, which can virtually eliminate entanglement risk.”

In Aquinnah, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head is the final resting place for the young female found off the shores of Noepe – the Wampanoag name for Martha’s Vineyard. For generations, the Wampanoag tribe has maintained its right to the ownership of marine mammals that wash ashore along New England’s beaches. Their connection to whales runs deep. Whales are a part of their creation stories and figure prominently in the story of Maushp, a giant who welcomed humans to Aquinnah. The Wampanoag and the whales hunted and fished alongside each other, providing nourishment and sustenance for both.

The Wampanoag have worshipped whales for thousands of years. They understand our shared connection to all living species on Mother Earth.

A traditional ceremony led by a Wampanoag medicine man honored the young female right whale who washed up on Cow Bay two weeks ago. The Wampanoag prepared a burial site to process the whale’s body. A special mixture of compost material will allow organisms in the soil to eat the remaining flesh and oil from the bones of a young life cut short. The process of cleaning the skeleton will take all summer.

Traditionally, bone was an important material used in several ways, according to Mr. Perry of the Wampanoag tribe. It was very common for the tribe to use the large vertebrae of whales as tool benches for chopping wood and shaping material. And, art created from the final remains of a whale could honor the whale for hundreds of years following death, Perry told the Vineyard Gazette last week.

The second right whale death this month occurred just before Feb. 13. This young female right whale was discovered dead floating off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. While sharks had scavenged the whale carcass, officials determined that blunt force trauma caused fractures to the whale’s skull. The injuries are consistent with a vessel strike, according to NOAA. This dead 1-year-old female calf of North Atlantic right whale #4340 – Pilgrim – was towed more than 20 miles to Tybee Island for the necropsy.

Pilgrim is prepared for a necropsy at Tybee Island, Georgia.

Amelia Island Whale Ambassadors have applied to NOAA to retain portions of this young whale to share her story and educate our community about the plight of all right whales.

A public ceremony honoring the daughter of right whale Pilgrim and all other whale deaths this season will be performed by Amelia Island Whale Ambassadors. The date and time for this event will be announced soon.

More than 650,000 marine mammals are unintentionally killed or injured by fishing gear every year; 300,000 of these are whales, dolphins and porpoises. Fishing ropes and buoy lines are the leading cause of death and injury for large whale species around the globe. The time to support and embrace ropeless fishing gear technology is now.

The other leading cause of death for whales is a vessel strike. Death in this manner can also be prevented. Consider the history of whaling and how observers were on duty 24/7 while a ship was underway hunting whales. A man posted above the deck of a vessel was vital to the livelihood of the whaling industry.

“Thus we were weaving and weaving away when I was startled at a sound so strange, long drawn, and musically wild and unearthly, that the ball of free will dropped from my hand, and I stood gazing up at the clouds whence that voice dropped like a wing. High aloft in the cross-trees was that mad Gay-Header, Tashtego. His body was reaching eagerly forward, his hand stretched out like a wand, and at brief sudden intervals he continued his cries. To be sure the same sound was that very moment perhaps being heard all over the seas, from hundreds of whalemen’s look-outs perched as high in the air; but from few of those lungs could that accustomed old cry have derived such a marvellous cadence as from Tashtego the Indian’s.

As he stood hovering over you half suspended in air, so wildly and eagerly peering towards the horizon, you would have thought him some prophet or seer beholding the shadows of Fate, and by those wild cries announcing their coming.

“There she blows! there! there! there! she blows! she blows!  By Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, chapter 47.

It is imperative that we return to the practice of posting an observer on the deck of all vessels passing through crucial whale habitats to protect what we once killed for profit.

Let us remember to honor all living spirits above and under the waves. Man does not stand alone in the center of the circle of life. All living species are connected and equally important. What we do to whales, we do to ourselves.

Here is some beautiful video footage of Pilgrim’s calf just days before her death. Thank you Joel Cohen and Blue World Institute for your dedication and love for our relations under the waves.
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1 month ago

The price paid by nature for our unsustainable (cheap throw-away gear) fishing practices and a world much too reliant on international trade.

Jo-Ann Leimberg
Active Member
Jo-Ann Leimberg(@jo-ann-leimberg)
1 month ago

Are there current legislative efforts underway to encourage “ropeless fishing”? Who spearheaded the efforts to have turtle excluder devices required? How long did it take for that requirement to become law? I don’t see this effort through World Wildlife or the Nature Conservancy. Can anyone suggest an organization working towards this end?

In googling “ropeless fishing”, I came across the estimate that by 2048 the seas will be effectively empty as a source of edible species. We can visualize a herd of cattle becoming smaller, or land resources devoted to raising food reduced. It is harder for most to understand the seemingly limitless ocean as being depleted.

1 month ago

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