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Right whale, Snow Cone, discovered with fifth entanglement in 'terrible health'

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New England Aquarium, taken under NOAA permit #25739
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North Atlantic right whale “Snow Cone” (Catalog #3560) spotted south of Nantucket on Sept. 21, 2022, dragging heavy fishing gear and in poor health.

An endangered North Atlantic right whale, named by researchers “Snow Cone,” has been spotted entangled in rope and heavy gear, about 15 miles south of Nantucket. She’s believed to be fighting for her life. CAI’s Eve Zuckoff spoke about a rescue effort with Scott Landry, who leads the entanglement response team for Provincetown’s Center for Coastal Studies. He began by talking about the history of this particular whale, who is well-known to researchers.

Landry: Snow Cone is a mature female North Atlantic right whale. So she's sort of a rare class of animals within her population. Her population is around 340 individual right whales that are left. And within that population, there's a small group that are reproductively active females. And she's sort of in the prime of her age right now. And her entanglement history, in some cases, is typical and in other aspects extremely unusual. So, for example, she's the first North Atlantic right whale that we know of that has given birth to a calf while she is entangled.

Zuckoff: What can you tell me about her current condition?

Landry: Her current condition is terrible, to be quite frank. We were not able to fully resolve her original entanglement from 2021. We removed hundreds of feet of her entanglement. But unfortunately, some of that entanglement is embedded in her upper jaw, which is extremely difficult to deal with in an animal in which we can't do surgery. So the amount of fat that she has has decreased. Her skin is becoming paler. A truly healthy right whale should have jet black skin. She has orange cyamids [whale lice]. Those appear when animals are unhealthy and she has a massive amount of them around her face, mostly around the sites of her entanglement. One of the things that that can indicate is that her swimming speed is not normal. It's slower. And so all of these are indications that she is doing quite poorly. Now, that being said, we have to be careful because this is only a visual health assessment. We're not drawing blood. We're not doing vital rates. And we know that some of our assessments in the past about entanglements have been incorrect. Whales do often surprise us either way. So questions, for example, have been coming at us about potentially euthanizing Snow Cone. The science of euthanizing a whale at sea is, let's say, in its extreme infancy. And while I might have my own personal beliefs about such things, I have to look at this from a conservation point of view. She is part of an extremely rare class of animals, a reproductively active North Atlantic right whale. If there is anything wrong in our assessment of her, we would be taking an enormous risk to be taking the life of an animal that is so rare.

Zuckoff: Are you exploring options to disentangle her or is it past that point?

Landry: No. In our history of doing this nearly 30 years, we have never given up on a whale. We have never assessed a whale and said, 'there is absolutely no hope.' Now, I'll temper that with the reality. It's New England. It is fall. We have hurricanes and other storm systems constantly coming through. Where she could be is not a place that we can find much safety from wind and waves, and we are limited in what we can do in sea conditions that are unworkable. So in other words, if me and my team cannot even stand up to do our work, we cannot safely disentangle her. So we are every single day, every night, every morning, we're assessing where we think she might be and what that weather is. At the moment, we're facing six foot seas every 6 seconds. What that means, just from a working on the water point of view, is that we can be standing on our small inflatable boat, which is only about 18 inches above the water. And she might be on the other side of a swell only 20 feet away from us, and we can't even see her because we have a hill of water in front of us. So that's the reality of it. But if we do find a weather window, we do feel as though there are things that we can do to make her life better.

Zuckoff: Do you know what kind of gear she's entangled in and how will that affect the strategy that you take in disentangling her?

Landry: So right now, what we have is aerial photographs, and from that, we have to make interpretations. I do not know the type of gear that she is in. I do know that what she is in is made of rope. Some of that rope is attached to something that is heavy. In other words, it is pulling the rope down into the water column, even when the whale was resting at the surface. And what we would want to do for her immediately is to relieve her of that weight. If we can get to her, that is what we will try to do. Now, something that keeps coming up from the public is, 'you say that you're tracking her. Why haven't you done anything for her in the last 18 months?' The word "tracking" is really misleading. There is no tracking device on her currently. We did not put a tracking device on her in the spring when she was here with her calf because doing so would endanger her and her calf. So she is not being tracked electronically. What is happening is that different research groups are heading out into different parts of the ocean, looking in places where sometimes right whales show up and if she's there, they might find her. If she's not there, we don't know where she is. So at this exact moment, my hope is that she would be somewhere in the neighborhood of where she was south of Nantucket. But for all we know, she's on George's Bank. Perhaps she went down towards Long Island. Maybe she's going to show up here in Massachusetts Bay.

Zuckoff: I want to talk about Snow Cone as a stand-in for the species. What does it mean that this right whale that we've been following has gotten tangled again? And what does it mean for the species that we can't keep these rare breeding females safe?

Landry: I'm at a loss for words to some extent. All our team can do is try to get these animals out of gear when we can find them. We are doing a very terrible job at keeping them from getting entangled in the first place. We cannot disentangle our way out of this entanglement problem. And we have been saying so for at least two decades. We drastically need to reduce the amount of rope that is in the ocean where they live. Again, I want to be clear: I am not asking for a drastic reduction in fishing. I am implying that we have to change the way we're doing this because we are so reliant on rope. And she is a perfect example of the fact that we cannot keep this species safe. We are not succeeding.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.