Endangered Whale Dies After Being Caught Up in Fishing Gear for Five Months

A critically endangered whale has died off the coast of South Carolina after being entangled in fishing gear for around five months.

Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) said Sunday that a North Atlantic right whale, known as "Cottontail," had been found dead around 15 miles from the coast of Myrtle Beach.

The 11-year-old male had previously been seen entangled in fishing gear in October 2020, off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts.

At that time, a Marine Animal Entanglement Response team from the Center for Coastal Studies attached tracking devices to the ropes entangling the whale in order to monitor its movements via satellite and provide information for future disentanglement efforts. They also removed some of the fishing gear from the whale.

The team said there was "a line over its head, exiting both sides of his mouth, extending beyond his tail for about three to four body lengths," according to the GARFO update.

The whale was seen alive a little more than a week ago off Florida's Treasure Coast. However, Cottontail died from his injuries before wildlife officials could free him from the fishing gear.

The death of the animal is the latest case in what officials have called an "Unusual Mortality Event" (UME) that has been ongoing among North Atlantic right whales since 2017.

Including the case of Cottontail, officials have documented 34 North Atlantic right whale deaths and 14 serious injuries over this time period in U.S. or Canadian waters, the GARFO said.

The NOAA says the main causes of the UME are collisions with vessels—their habitat and migration routes often overlap with shipping lanes—and entanglement in fishing gear.

Commercial whalers had hunted North Atlantic right whales to the brink of extinction by the early 1890s. They are still one of the world's most endangered large whale species with only around 400 individuals remaining, according to the GARFO.

"The 48 whales documented so far in the UME represent more than 10 percent of the population and is a significant setback to the species' recovery," the GARFO said.

In addition to entanglement and vessel strikes, the whales, which are primarily found in the coastal waters of the North Atlantic, 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 their communication.

North Atlantic right whales can weigh up to around 140,000 pounds and measure up to 52 feet in length, according to NOAA Fisheries.

These whales can likely live to around 70 years of age, although data on their average lifespan is limited. In addition, it appears that female and male right whales are living to only 45 and 65 years old respectively. Researchers say this reduced lifespan is due to human-caused mortality.

Correction 03/02 7.45 a.m. ET 2021: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that fishing vessel collisions are not one of the main causes of UMEs.

A North Atlantic right whale
A North Atlantic right whale swims in the waters of Cape Cod Bay April 14, 2019 near Provincetown, Massachusetts. DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images