North Atlantic right whale dies off coast of South Carolina after months tangled in fishing gear

Discarded — or ghost — fishing gear has claimed another life in a tiny, fragile population.

A North Atlantic right whale, named Cottontail by researchers, has died off the coast of South Carolina after at least four months severely tangled in old fishing gear, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Center for Coastal Studies.

“We are deeply saddened to share more tragic news for the North Atlantic right whale,” the IFAW announced this week.

The animal was first sighted back in October with hundreds of heavy feet of rope trailing its mouth and tightly wrapping his upper jaw. The animal was spotted alive during the last week of February by aerial survey teams off Florida’s Treasure Coast, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Its death was confirmed off Myrtle Beach on Feb. 28.

The IFAW and the Center for Coastal Studies launched several disentanglement missions for the 11-year-old male right whale last fall.

At one point about 100 feet of rope was removed and a satellite tracking device was attached.

Cottontail was photographed by the on Oct. 19, 2020 south of Nantucket. Photo: Center for Coastal Studies

“Due to severe weather, these rescue efforts were hampered and soon, the teams lost sight of Cottontail,” the IFAW explained. “When spotted again days later, the fishing gear was wrapped tightly around Cottontail, inflicting severe wounds while also making it so he could no longer feed properly.”

Yet, the whale continue to swim for hundreds of miles between Canada and the United States.

Cottontail travelled hundreds of miles while trapped in ropes. Photo: IFAW/Center for Coastal Studies

The species is being driven toward extinction by human interaction. Collision with ships as well as entanglements are serious problems.

Cottontail would have suffered for months trapped in fishing gear. Photo: IFAW/Center for Coastal Studies

The North Atlantic right whale is considered critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. There are perhaps 200 to 250 mature individuals left in the world, according to the IUCN, and maybe up to 400 at most total.

The population is dramatically down from pre-whaling era estimates of 9,000 to 21,000 animals.

Modern life continues to be difficult for the right whale, which calls the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe home.

“These whales must maneuver through an industrialized waterway dense with intense shipping traffic and an estimated one million commercial vertical fishing lines in the water column,” Brian Sharp, IFAW’s Director of Marine Mammal Rescue & Research, said in a statement.

“This journey to their feeding grounds, which the species has taken for centuries, is becoming a journey of no return,” he added.

We are deeply saddened to share more tragic news for the North Atlantic right whale: After over four months of suffering…

Posted by ifaw on Saturday, March 13, 2021

Cottontail’s death off Myrtle Beach brings the number of North Atlantic right whale deaths of 34 since 2017 and another 14 seriously injured.

NOAA’s fisheries department keeps track of unusual deaths, and the bulk are happening in Canada, but some, like Cottontail, are in the U.S.

Entangled right whale #3920, Cottontail, the subject of an extensive search and rescue mission by the Center for Coastal…

Posted by Center for Coastal Studies on Monday, March 1, 2021

People are asked to report stranded or injured whales, but not approach them themselves.

In the United States, people can call the Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at (866) 755-6622 or the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at (877) 433-8299.  

In Canada, reach out to Marine Animal Response Society at 1-866-567-6277 or the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network at 1-877-722-5346.

You can also contact the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards on VHF Channel 16.

Fishers are also asked to bring broken or old gear to shore to trash; not to leave it in the ocean or toss it overboard to discard.

Otherwise, more animals are bound to meet Cottontail’s fate.

Cottontail sadly couldn’t be saved. Photo: IFAW/Center for Coastal Studies

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Recovering newspaper reporter.

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