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‘We’re Heartbroken’: Endangered Right Whale Found In 'Terrible Condition' Off Nantucket

Images taken by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center/Peter Duley under MMPA permit #21371.
On February 24, 2020, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center aerial survey team discovered Dragon entangled in fishing gear, which is lodged in and around her mouth. The patches of orange cyamids indicate that she is emaciated and in very poor health.

A critically endangered North Atlantic right whale has been seen with grave injuries off the south coast of Nantucket.

Aerial survey teams for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration first spotted Dragon, the 19-year-old reproductive female, on Monday with a buoy lodged in the right side of her mouth and injuries that were infested with orange cyanids, a kind of lice.

“It—it hits us hard,” said Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium.

The whale’s skin was gray and in "very poor" condition, and the buoy had prevented her from closing her mouth. She was emaciated.

“It appeared she was not feeding, swimming slowly, taking short dives,” Knowlton said. “So that’s not a good sign.”

Dragon has given birth three times, and is one of about 85 females left in the population that’s fallen to just 400 or so. Females in the species can have many as nine calves in a lifetime.

Credit Clearwater Marine Aquarium, taken under NOAA permit #594-1759.
Dragon with her first calf on February 8, 2008.

If she succumbs to her injuries, Knowlton said, “we’ve lost all of her future calves. And it just reduces the chance that this population can turn things around.”  

Dragon’s first calf died of unknown causes within a week; her second “seems to be doing well,” according to the Aquarium; and her last calf hasn’t been seen since 2016.

This year, ten North Atlantic right whale calves have reportedly been born, but conservationists say that number should be closer to 30 to ensure survival of the species.

The Aquarium has documented over 1,500 entanglements since 1980. In a press release, the Aquarium noted “86.1 percent of right whales have been entangled at least once with more than half of them entangled twice or more.”

Some have been entangled as many as eight times over the course of their lives.  

The sighting of Dragon came just days before the Canadian government unveiled long-awaited regulations on its fishing industry to protect the whales. The regulations include speed limits, fishing closures, and requirements for gear marking and gear modification.

In Cape Cod Bay, a three-month fishing closure is underway as part of a federal effort to reduce the risk of entanglements in fishing gear by 60 percent.

As for Dragon, Scott Landry, the director of the Marine Mammal Entanglement Response team at Provincetown’s Center for Coastal Studies (CCS), said the Center has not deployed its rescue team due to sea conditions.

Knowlton said this would be a particularly challenging and “unusual” entanglement for any response team.

“There’s no trailing gear, no body wraps. There’s really nothing to try to cut [off] this whale that would help her… survive this,” she said, but ultimately deferred to the Center. 

“Even if they did get that buoy out [of her mouth] and she was able to start feeding," Knowlton said, "she has a long road to recovery and it’s uncertain whether she’s past that point." 

“She could live for weeks,” Landry wrote in an email, “and we have to hope."

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