Evidence of entanglement in right whale death

Researchers confirm it was a juvenile female, and the first right whale known to have died this year.



Updated Jan. 31

Researchers say that entanglement may be the cause of the death of a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale that washed up on a Vineyard beach this week. 

In what is the first confirmed right whale death of the year, the juvenile washed ashore at Cow Bay in Edgartown, adding another blow to the effort to save the critically endangered species. 

A team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) was on the scene for the week starting on Monday morning; staff secured the whale to the beach as waves washed over it. By our print deadline Wednesday, officials were trying to tug the whale to a different location in order to perform a necropsy.

Researchers say the whale was a young female, although they aren’t sure of the exact age yet.

A preliminary report indicates that rope had entangled the juvenile near its tail. 

According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), state officials on Sunday retrieved rope that was “entangled around, and embedded in, the whale’s tail” and handed it over to NOAA Fisheries, where it will be examined by gear experts.

“While we don’t know the cause of death yet, we know that entanglements can lead to long-term suffering and death. We also know that entanglements must be prevented to save this species from extinction,” said Sarah Sharp, an animal rescue veterinarian with IFAW.

North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with only approximately 360 individuals left in the wild. The population is seemingly in decline: According to NOAA Fisheries, there are fewer than 70 breeding females left. 

Andrea Gomez, NOAA Fisheries communications specialist, reports that the leading causes of death among right whales are from fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes. Climate change is another factor that affects “every aspect of their survival,” Gomez said; that includes altering migratory patterns and feeding areas. 

Another threat to right whales is “ocean noise,” according to NOAA, which can interfere with the species’ ability to avoid threats, navigate or identify physical surroundings, and find food or mates. There has been an increase in ocean noise caused by human activities, such as “shipping, boating, construction, and energy exploration and development,” in the Northwest Atlantic, the NOAA Fisheries North Atlantic right whale directory page states. 

The death of the juvenile whale on the Island is devastating news for other researchers in the field.

Charles (“Stormy”) Mayo, director of the Center for Coastal Studies right whale ecology program in Provincetown, said right whales are close to extinction. 

“The loss of any right whale is a terrible blow to the effort to try to recover the animals,” he said, adding that it’s even worse if the whale turns out to be a female, because they “drive the system.” 

“Every loss is a disaster,” he said. 

NOAA will be working with the Massachusetts Environmental Police and local responders — the Edgartown Police Department, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the New England Aquarium. 

“This has been a tragic month for North Atlantic right whales, beginning with news of a calf seriously injured by a boat propeller, and now the death of a juvenile female,” Philip Hamilton, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, said in a statement. “The time to implement bold protections to protect this critically endangered species from human-caused impacts is now if we are to avoid extinction.”

Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization, issued a statement in response to the whale’s death. “It’s devastating to hear about another loss to North Atlantic right whales,” Gib Brogan, campaign director at Oceana, said in the press release. “This death is even more troubling when it is a female calf that could have gone on to have many calves of her own for decades to come. The recovery of North Atlantic right whales cannot take any more setbacks.”

Brogan said that since 2017, at least 55 North Atlantic right whales have been killed or seriously injured by boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. He said the latest example should serve as a “wakeup call.”

“The survival of North Atlantic right whales requires strong leadership in the U.S. and Canadian governments to ensure fishing and boat traffic stop killing the remaining whales,” he said.

Both Oceana and IFAW have pushed for the adoption of on-demand, or ropeless, fishing gear to keep fishermen on the water and protect right whales, in separate statements. 

This isn’t the first time a right whale has been found dead around Martha’s Vineyard. Two dead whales washed ashore on the Vineyard in 2017, and the floating carcass of a right whale was found off Chappaquiddick in 2018. In the 2018 case, the carcass was left to drift out to sea. 

NOAA says the public should report injured or stranded whales, and maintain a distance of 150 feet. The Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline can be reached at 866-755-6622, and the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 877-433-8299.


  1. Can we all agree that the amount of deal marine wildlife is a bit fishy? I don’t think any theory as to why should be discounted. Put everything on the table and have the best independent scientists have at it. But something seems amiss. The amount of seals, whales and dolphins ending up dying lately is alarming.


    Is this because of climate change, pollution, wind mills, Fukushima? All of the above? Or this the natural life cycle and it’s just being reported more?

    • You neglected to mention the most obvious and the one most supported by evidence, namely entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes.
      Marine mammals have beached themselves, sometimes in mass strandings resulting in death for as far back as I can remember. That might be reason to strike several the reasons you mention from the list of potential culprits.

  2. It’s time for an Impartial, non biased, independent agency to perform necropsies on all these strandings and make the results public. The public deserves answers!
    NOAA refuses to release their information to the public, as their policies have changed.
    The timing of the policy change seems to at the same time as the mortality uptick.
    Like I said in a previous comment , seems a little fishy!

    • “It’s time for an Impartial, non biased, independent agency to perform necropsies on all these strandings and make the results public.”

      There is no such thing.

      • Albert. You might have noticed that Jason wants
        V.W to at least pay for the necropsies.
        Of course if they did that it would be easy to claim
        they were biased, and the results untrustworthy.

        • Don – I was merely suggesting that in order clear their name completely, it my be an option to help fund the necropsies.
          After all they’re already funding WHOI and many other environmental groups, can’t get much more biased then they already are. Sorry for the sarcasm.

          In all seriousness though ,whatever necropsies are performed, the results should be made 100% public

          • Jason, WHOI is not and environmental group. It is a research institution focused on the science of nature.

            Do you think that WHOI is biased?

            In all seriousness though ,whatever necropsies are funded with 100% tax dollars should be made 100% public..

      • Albert– I think we all agree that whoever performs
        any necropsy on any marine mammal should
        make the results available to the public regardless
        of the source of funding.
        I have yet to see any evidence to the contrary.
        Yes, Jason has claimed that Noaa changed their rules about
        that but, I personally think he has misinterpreted something.
        He did after all, read the word “take” and thought that
        Noaa had authorized V.W to kill up to 20 right whales.
        He has never actually acknowledged his mistake about
        that even though it caused widespread outrage and
        perpetuated that mythh to this day.
        Until I see some conclusive documentation of the
        claim that Noaa will no longer release information
        to the public l will continue to think that ALL necropsy results
        will be made public— as they always have. Especially
        this one. Does anyone really think that this animal’s cause
        of death will be investigated and that NOAA or any other
        agency will then refuse
        to publicly report the results ?
        The “debate” about funding and public disclosure is ;
        Take your pick—
        A red herring
        A “straw man argument”
        A distraction
        An effort to deflect from reality
        Deliberate misinformation
        Yet another sinister conspiracy theory
        to discredit yet another agency of the
        federal government to cast doubt about
        actual facts in deference to “alternative facts”
        All the above…

    • Donald —Once “they” are all extinct the oil industry,
      the shipping industry and the fishing industry will have
      one less obstacle to overcome.
      Those industries, after all, are thoroughly
      documented to be the leading cause of
      death for all species of marine mammals.
      In it’s 30 or so year history, there has never
      been a documented case of ANY marine mammal being
      killed by windfarm construction or operation.

    • Annie–I agree — of course it is.
      The question is how much damage, and at what
      comparison to alternatives.
      If Thurston Howell the third ever gets off of
      Gilligan’s Island and decides to build a 300 ft
      dock for his yacht, that is going to disturb
      ocean life also. Will it kill whales ?
      Who knows– A pole in the ocean is a pole
      in the ocean.
      And I think Mr. Howells yacht would make about
      as much noise as a windmill, and would be much
      more likely to kill a whale with a propeller strike
      than a windmill .
      The blades of the windmills never get closer to
      the ocean surface than 100 ft.
      Whales can’t breach that high.

      • The answer is very clear.
        There is no free lunch.
        Most everything exists at the cost of something else.

  3. “Gomez said that a preliminary report indicates the presence of rope entangled near the whale’s tail. According to NOAA Fisheries, the leading cause of death among right whales are from fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes.“
    If this particular whale has died of gear entanglement, wouldn’t the rope/gear most likely still be attached? Hope they get a definitive reason as to why this right whale has died.

  4. “So, the whale was wrapped in fishing gear, but it MUST be the windmills…….. ”
    So sayeth the people who complain the windmills ruined the oceanfront views…

  5. This is one of the rarest mammals in the world, admittedly vulnerable to the increased ship strike risk and deafening noise from the Vineyard Wind project. Such a heavy handed, industrial activity should never have been permitted in the whales’ last nursery and feeding grounds.
    Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

    • “deafening noise from the Vineyard Wind project.” have you ever been on an oil drilling rig?
      The sound of fracking?

  6. This is one of the rarest mammals in the world, admittedly vulnerable to the increased ship strike risk and deafening noise from oil drilling rigs, tankers, high speed container ships and fishing gear. Such a heavy handed, industrial activity should never have been permitted anywhere.

    Play stupid games, drill holes in the ocean, suck out black goo, light it on fire, win stupid prizes.

  7. Well , I’m admitting that I was wrong in this case.
    Entanglements are a rarity and the stranding groups still say it may not be the cause of death and wasn’t entangled in this area ( as they believe they know who she is)but it’s an entanglement either way and a mortality.

    Sad to say the least!

    • from the article ” Brogan said that since 2017, at least 55 North Atlantic right whales have been killed or seriously injured by boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. He said the latest example should serve as a “wakeup call.” This is NOT a rarity. Your personal bias is so plainly apparent from all your postings and comments.

  8. Don – I agree that the term “take” can be pretty benign but it can also be pretty drastic. A “take” as defined by NOAA can be a simple”approach” to a protected animal, but it can also be a “harassment,harm,injure or kill” . These permits are issued to oil/gas exploration, naval operations and offshore wind. They are either all ok , all good, or all bad …that’s up to every individual to decide I guess.
    I also agree that I could have been less dramatic when originally explaining the ITPs ,I was mostly trying to make people aware they existed, not spread fear , my Bad!
    You and I are not far apart as you may think , my opinion is that we both want the same thing and that is protecting the environment.
    We may have differences of opinion on how to do that but that’s ok , it’s actually healthy because we can both learn.
    As for NOAA changing their policies on necropsy results released to the public, here it is and hopefully the link opens https://photos.app.goo.gl/auWiZeoKBhK7VAaf7

    What just happened with the whale is a tragedy and hopefully we get the results back as the cause of death.
    Yes she had an entanglement, that can’t be denied but the stranding groups say it still may not be the cause of death.

    Entanglements, yes , are in fact a rarity in this country and almost non existent in this region.
    This whale is likely #5120 in the right whale catalog database and if so , then the entanglement happened in new Brunswick Canada where whale safe gear restrictions are not in place.
    For anyone that disagrees with my statements , please research for yourself about entanglements in this state , region and nationally.
    I’m also willing to share in person all the information I have. I’ve been in this for a long time now ,as we in the lobster business have had to adapt to all measures to protect these whales and be part of meetings with DMF for 20 years.

    If I was so biased, then I’d be denying the fact that this whale entangled , which I’m not.

    • Jason– I appreciate your candor on this.
      I will point out however that while the term
      “take” could include “harassment,harm,injure or kill”
      the permit that V.W has forbids any physical harm or
      death of any marine mammals. — Class “A” and “B”
      levels of harassment only– we have been over this before.
      But, really, what say we meet up for a monday night
      burger special at the Chowder Co, ?
      I am currently in Barbados, so this week doesn’t work,
      but sometime soon ?

  9. Tim- the article has misinformed you , not 55.
    Here’s the list from NOAA from 2017 -2023 also the map from where dead right whales were recovered. If you go to NOAAs website the information and tag numbers are all there.
    Please note the the determined causes of death and the area associated. Also note the entanglements in Canada where the restrictions on gear don’t exist. Entanglements are rare in this area , data proves it.
    Our recent whale is likely #5120 on the database, entanglement happened in Canada, not here https://photos.app.goo.gl/6XBwzMZ5r1n42gn69

  10. Don ,Tim and others- let’s all look at this clip from the article and maybe agree that we’re all in this together and part of the problem? NOAA quotes here that energy development and construction is a contributing factor.https://photos.app.goo.gl/U3csFKYJYKkwmYZP6

    I don’t like seeing that whale washed up anymore than any of you do! I consider myself to be a good steward of the ocean, I want it to thrive and kept clean.

  11. Carl-
    I find it interesting that so many dolphins
    are dying in Barnegat bay.
    You may not know this, but the Toms river
    chemical plant dumped millions of gallons
    of some of the most toxic waste the industrial
    world has ever created directly into Toms river
    which emptied into Barnegat
    Bay. In addition , they had an outfall
    pipe that dumped up to 5 million gallons
    of said toxic sludge into the ocean 1/2 mile
    off the coast not far from Island Beach
    state park. They did it every day for about 30 years.
    Until those “silly” regulators shut it down in the
    late 1990’s. A little too late for hundreds of children
    that died from rare bladder and brain cancers
    as a result.
    The dolphin deaths are probably not caused by
    Fukushima or yet to be
    built wind farms.

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