Emaciated Humpback Whale That Died Entangled in Fishing Gear Found in Massachusetts

An emaciated humpback whale that died entangled in fishing gear has been found on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

The 30-foot whale, which beached at Provincetown Harbor on Cape Cod, died of "chronic entanglement," officials from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said, according to local news outlet WCVB.

IFAW officials said they had received reports of dead whale at the harbor on Monday. The animal was found in an area in which the carcass was almost fully submerged at high tide.

On Tuesday, the animal welfare nonprofit sent a team of six people to the site, including a veterinarian and a biologist, in order to perform a necropsy on the whale.

The team confirmed that the whale was a sub-adult humpback measuring just under 30 feet in length.

In addition, the necropsy—an animal autopsy—revealed that the whale was emaciated and had an empty stomach, with the exception of fluid, which are signs of chronic entanglement in fishing gear or marine debris.

"While we aim to thoroughly examine every whale case that washes up on shore, cases like this one are a strong reminder of how important this work is to determine how we as humans impact these animals," said Misty Niemeyer, stranding coordinator for the IFAW's Marine Mammal Rescue & Research team.

Samples collected from Tuesday's necropsy have been sent to labs for further analysis. IFAW officials said the carcass of the whale will remain on the beach to decompose naturally.

The Center for Coastal Studies, a nonprofit organization based in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said it is working to identify the whale in question.

Entanglement is a significant threat to whales across the globe. While the full extent of the problem is hard to assess, research indicates that more than 300,000 whales and dolphins die every year due to entanglement in fishing gear, according to the International Whaling Commission.

Entanglement can lead to animals drowning because they can't reach the surface to breathe, as well as lacerations and infections due to equipment cutting through their skin, and starvation because they can no longer feed or hunt like they do normally.

Entanglement can have devastating impacts on whale populations that are already threatened. For some animals, such as North Atlantic right whales living off the U.S. East Coast for example, entanglement is one of the leading causes of death alongside vessel strikes.

In October, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and the New England Aquarium announced that the species had reached its lowest population estimate in 20 years, just 336 individuals in 2020—a decline of 30 percent over the last decade.

In addition to entanglement and vessel strikes, these whales also face threats from habitat degradation, climate change and increasing ocean noise levels from human activities that can interrupt their normal behavior and interfere with communication.

A beached humpback whale
Stock image showing a beached humpback whale. A humpback whale that died entangled in fishing gear has been found in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. iStock