Endangered Right Whale Gives Birth While Entangled In Fishing Gear

A whale named Snow Cone has surprised scientists by giving birth to a healthy calf despite being encumbered by heavy fishing rope.

A female North Atlantic right whale who has been entangled in fishing gear for months has given birth to a healthy calf, but scientists fear for the small family’s welfare in the long term.

The mother whale, nicknamed Snow Cone, was first seen dragging fishing rope behind her in Massachusett’s Plymouth Bay in March, according to a Friday release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Rescuers were able to get some, but not all, of the rope off of her before she left the bay.

Snow Cone, with fishing rope dragging from her mouth, and her newborn calf on Dec. 2.
Snow Cone, with fishing rope dragging from her mouth, and her newborn calf on Dec. 2.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources/NOAA Permit #20556

More attempts were made to free her in May and June, but Snow Cone resisted their efforts and was “evasive and strong,” Mackie Greene of the New Brunswick-based Campobello Whale Rescue team told CBC News.

No one knew at the time that Snow Cone was pregnant. But earlier this month, scientists spotted Snow Cone ― still dragging thick, heavy rope from her mouth ― with a newborn calf off the coast of Georgia.

NOAA scientists were both “surprised and concerned” that Snow Cone had managed to give birth while entangled, the agency’s statement said.

The calf is healthy, uninjured and not caught in the rope, but scientists fear the baby could get entangled, too.

“My concern is [Snow Cone’s] still got two pieces of rope, about 20 feet, coming out from the left side of her mouth,” Clay George, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist told the Associated Press. “If those two pieces of rope ended up getting knotted around each other and there’s a loop, you could imagine that calf could end up becoming entangled.”

Even if that doesn’t happen, the stress of the situation still poses a major threat to both the calf and Snow Cone’s health.

“Entanglement alone is a costly energetic drain and so is nursing a calf,” Barb Zoodsma, a large whale recovery coordinator at NOAA, said in the release. “The severity of her mouth and head injuries are also disconcerting. For these reasons, Snow Cone may be facing her biggest challenge yet in the upcoming months.”

She noted, however that Snow Cone’s perseverance ― her previous calf was killed in a boat collision last year ― shows that the mother whale “clearly” has “game.”

In the meantime, scientists say that, while her newborn is close by, it’s too risky to get close to Snow Cone to try again to disentangle her.

North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, and both fishing gear entanglements and collisions with ships are major threats to the species. According to NOAA, there are fewer than 350 of the whales left, and they’re currently dying out faster than they can reproduce.

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