SAVANNAH, Ga. — Wildlife experts cut away more than 280 feet of commercial fishing line being dragged by an endangered right whale off the Georgia coast, though some of the heavy rope had to be left tangled in the whale’s mouth, officials said Thursday.
Entanglement in commercial fishing gear and collisions with ships off the East Coast are considered the greatest threats to the right whale’s survival. Experts estimate only about 450 of the large whales remain. Each winter they migrate to the warmer waters off Georgia and Florida to give birth to their calves.
It was the first time since 2011 that a right whale snared in fishing gear has been spotted offshore in the Southeast, said Clay Georgia, a marine mammal biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He was part of the team that got close enough to the 30-foot whale to sever the three-quarters-inch fishing line using a grappling hook equipped with cutting blades.
“We feel like what we did gives the whale a fighting chance to shed the remainder of the rope on its own,” said George, who estimated the whale is still dragging about 20 feet of the rope woven with lead weights. “The real take-home message here is we can’t just go out and save and fix every whale that shows up entangled. In some cases it’s just completely impossible to disentangle that whale.”
The entangled whale spotted this week was actually a 4-year-old male, which George said isn’t surprising despite a misconception that only pregnant females and their babies migrate south at wintertime.
A crew doing aerial surveys for the Navy offshore near Jacksonville, Fla., spotted the whale dragging fishing line behind it Sunday. Florida officials responding by boat managed to cut away some of the rope and attach a tracking buoy to the end.
The whale was about 40 miles offshore of Darien, Ga., on Monday when the Georgia DNR was able to maneuver a small boat close enough to cut away most of the remainder.