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Endangered right whale finally freed from entanglement

March 12, 2009 |  3:04 pm

Disentanglement team cuts rope tightly wrapped over the whale's head.

A North Atlantic right whale first sighted early this year severely entangled in fishing gear has finally been freed from most of the line.

Spotted by a Georgia WIldlife Trust aerial survey team in mid-January, the whale was noted to have multiple lengths of heavy line cutting into its left upper jaw and lip. A Georgia Department of Natural Resources crew was able to get close enough to the mammal to remove some of the lines and tag it with a tracking buoy.

Several attempts to disentangle the whale since the first encounter were unsuccessful.  Scientists, veterinarians and researchers from organizations including Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, Wildlife Trust and many others became involved in the rescue endeavor.

Last week, thanks to the efforts of this multi-institutional team and use of a sedation delivery system made up of a 12-inch needle and a syringe driven by compressed air, the 40-foot, 40,000-pound mammal was finally able to be sedated enough to allow boats to approach and remove 90% of the gear that had been cutting into its flesh.

"The use of sedatives in a large free-ranging whale is novel and an exciting new tool in the large whale disentanglement toolbox," Woods Hole veterinarian and research biologist Michael Moore said in a news release. " However, it does not address the underlying problem of how to enable fixed-gear fisheries to pursue a profitable business, without jeopardizing the survival of endangered species such as the North Atlantic right whale."

North Atlantic right whales are an extremely endangered species, with an estimated 300 to 400 in existence. Ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear are the most common human causes of serious injury and death to these animals.

The freed whale remains in very poor condition and has a guarded prognosis, but the disentanglement will help give it a better chance for survival.

-- Kelly Burgess

Photo: Disentanglement team cuts rope tightly wrapped over the whale's head. Credit: Wildlife Trust / Georgia Department of Natural Resources