Spate of right whale deaths triggers alarm

Advocates worry as 2d carcass in 24 hours is found

By David Abel, Globe Staff
January 13, 2005

A 40-foot-long Northern right whale was found dead yesterday off the coast of Georgia, the second carcass of the endangered species discovered off the Eastern seaboard in 24 hours and the fourth in six weeks, officials said.

Since scientists began tracking the right whale 25 years ago, the deaths are the most recorded in such a short period, said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium.

''This is unprecedented," he said. ''It's the best of times and the worst of times now."

The National Marine Fisheries Service said it has determined that one of the whales died as a result of injuries received when it was struck by a vessel. The cause of the other deaths is still unclear.

Many of the estimated 325 to 350 right whales believed to exist are known to feed off the New England coast.

Nevertheless, the latest deaths come at a hopeful time for the species: An estimated 13 calves have been born this breeding season, giving marine scientists hope that the whales will rebound. Though about 25 percent of calves typically die within the first year, the population has grown by as many as 50 right whales since 2000.

Still, advocates for the whales, which often swim close to the surface, say more should be done to protect the species from the shipping and fishing industries.

About 72 percent of whales show scars from entanglements in fishing lines, a rise of about 8 percentage points from the mid-1990s, scientists say. Observers believe that about 13 right whales are now dragging entangled fishing lines, a problem that can lead to infection or death.

''Killing more than one of these whales a year puts them on the path to extinction," said James McCaffrey, director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club, an environmental group. ''The National Marine Fisheries Service needs to come up with a technological solution or limit fishing and shipping in the whale habitat. We're at a point that things have to change."

Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Northeast, said the problem is complicated and defies a simple solution. She also said her agency could not confirm that the number of right whales found dead in recent weeks is unprecedented.

It's possible, she said, that the increased number of whales found dead is the result of improved tracking and observation.

''If it were a simple problem to resolve, it certainly would have been done," said Frady. ''To say that shipping should stop is not only not fair but not reasonable. We're trying ways to reduce the risks. It's not a fast solution."

A New England Aquarium aerial survey team spotted the dead 40-foot whale yesterday, about 15 miles east of Cumberland Island in Georgia. On Tuesday, the Coast Guard found the carcass of a 45-foot-long female about 80 miles east of Nantucket.

Scientists intend to tow both whales to shore for necropsies, LaCasse said.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


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