Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rope removed from right whale found dead last month was from Maine, NOAA says

A young female right whale was found dead on an Edgartown beach in late January 2024.
Eve Zuckoff
A young female right whale was found dead on an Edgartown beach in late January 2024.

Federal fisheries officials said Wednesday that the rope found on a dead right whale that washed ashore on Martha's Vineyard last month is from Maine.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found purple markings on the gear recovered from the young female, known as right whale #5120. NOAA officials said the rope and its markings are consistent with those that Maine lobstermen and pot and trap fishermen use.

Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Kehiler said he also reviewed the gear in person and confirmed the purple markings.

"This is very unfortunate — our goal is zero entanglements," Keliher said Wednesday in a message to the lobster industry. "Certainly, this is a rare event, in fact it is the first right whale entanglement with known Maine gear since 2004. It is also the first right whale mortality with known Maine gear that DMR is aware of since the establishment of the Take Reduction Plan."

But scientists caution that the vast majority of right whale entanglements are undetected and the gear historically has not been recovered or identified.

One section of rope with purple zip tie nub that was entangled on North Atlantic right whale #5120.
NOAA Fisheries
One section of rope with purple zip tie nub that was entangled on North Atlantic right whale #5120.

The Maine lobster fishery began consistently marking its gear a few years ago. And as Maine Public reported last year, the most common color that NOAA officials have recovered from other types of entangled whales, such as minkes and humpbacks, has been purple, the Maine mark.

"We have many, many cases where we don't know where the gear's from," said Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium. "It's retrieved and it's rope only; there's no gear mark on it. So we can't link it to a region. Now that there's gear marking, we're beginning to get a better sense of where these events are happening."

Scientists first observed the whale entangled off the coast of New Brunswick when she was one-year-old.

"She was probably growing into that gear as she grew as a young whale," Knowlton said. "That has happened on multiple occasions with right whales."

Last January, observers spotted her again in Cape Cod Bay and attempted to disentangle her. But NOAA officials said they were unsuccessful because the weather conditions were poor, and there was no trailing line to work with. She was spotted again by air last summer, and her wounds looked more severe, NOAA said.

The rope was found deeply embedded in the whale's tail. The full necropsy results for right whale #5120 are pending. NOAA has determined that the whale suffered from a chronic entanglement and has simply identified the rope found on the whale at the time of her death.

"Entangling a whale is not something any fishermen wants see or hear about," Keliher said. "This news will undoubtedly also bring with it a fear and anxiousness around what could come next from NOAA. It is important to point out that while terrible news, it doesn’t change the fact that Congress has stated in law that this fishery is in compliance with the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act until Dec. 31, 2028."

Some environmental advocacy groups, including those that have challenged the Maine lobster industry in court over the years, took the opportunity Wednesday to call for an end to this regulatory pause through 2028.

Democratic Rep. Jared Golden of Maine's second congressional district said he remains opposed to such efforts.

“Maine’s lobster industry is the backbone of communities up and down our coast,” Golden said in a statement. “The death of this whale is unfortunate, but we have to be real about tradeoffs. I will continue to stand with Maine’s lobstermen in the face of any effort to use this incident to justify new mandates that would threaten their livelihoods and the foundation of communities that depend on this fishery.”

Other conservation advocates repeated their calls to expand the use of so-called "ropeless" and "on-demand" fishing gear to reduce the risks of right whale entanglements. Maine recently received millions of dollars to expand the testing of this equipment, although many in the industry have been reluctant to try it.

“Entanglements are a constant threat to right whales, cutting their lives short and painting a disheartening future for this species,” Erica Fuller, senior counsel for the Conservation Law Foundation. “There have been concerns about the threat Maine fishing gear poses to right whales for years. It’s time to move forward with new fishing practices to give these endangered whales a chance at survival.”

Both NOAA and the Maine DMR said their investigations are still open. NOAA suggested that the recovered gear is from Maine state waters, but Keliher said the evidence is not conclusive.

In its own statement, the Maine Lobstermen's Association said it too was "heartbroken" by the news of an entanglement attributed to the state's fishery.

"Maine lobstermen have made significant changes to how they fish over the last 25 years to avoid entanglement and continue gear testing," the group said in an email. "The MLA will continue this important work as we review the data and evidence that NMFS has collected. MLA remains committed to finding a solution to ensure a future for right whales and Maine’s lobster fishery.”

Roughly 350 right whales remain. Entanglements and ship strikes are the two leading causes of death to the critically endangered right whale population.

Latest Stories