A North Atlantic right whale was found dead on a Martha’s Vineyard beach off the coast of Massachusetts on Sunday, Jan. 28. This juvenile female is the second dead or seriously (mortally) injured right whale to be found in U.S. waters in 2024 and underscores the fragility of this critically endangered species that survives only in U.S. and Canadian waters.
“The science conclusively demonstrates that even a single human-caused death or serious injury a year puts the North Atlantic right whale at risk of extinction,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “We’re not even out of January yet and we’ve already blown past that limit for 2024. We are running out of time to do what needs to be done to reverse course and avoid extinction.”
The right whale washed up on Joseph Sylvia State Beach in Edgartown and will be necropsied by NOAA Fisheries to determine a cause of death. Rope was found entangled near the whale’s tail, pointing to evidence of an entanglement in fishing gear.
Fishing gear entanglement is one of two primary mortal threats facing the North Atlantic right whale and occurs when whales become entangled in fishing ropes or nets. Entangled right whales may drown immediately or suffer painful injuries that lead to starvation, infection and death over time. Non-fatal entanglement injuries may put enough strain on females to cause significant declines in the species’ birth rate.
With approximately 360 right whales still swimming along the East Coast, fewer than 70 are reproductive females, making any death a brutal blow to the species' survival. The deceased whale has not yet been identified but is likely a juvenile, based on its size.
Defenders and its conservation allies have worked for years to reduce the threat of painful and deadly fishing gear entanglements and to promote the coexistence of right whales and the U.S. fishing industry through innovative fishing technologies that keep entangling ropes out of the water column.
The other major threat to the North Atlantic right whale, vessel strikes, came to bear earlier this month. A calf spotted on Jan. 3 off the coast of South Carolina was seen with grievous head, face and mouth wounds as it swam alongside its mother, “Juno.” The wounds are so severe that the calf will not likely survive to adulthood. NOAA Fisheries determined the calf was likely struck by a vessel between 35 and 57 feet in length, which is below the required length for vessels governed by the current speed rule in place to protect this and other species.
The existing rule has remained untouched since 2008, despite work by Defenders and fellow conservation groups to advocate for seasonal speed limits for all vessels 35 feet and longer in places where right whales are most at risk. The Biden administration denied an emergency petition to secure better protections for vulnerable right whale mothers and calves in January 2023. Currently, a right whale calf has a 1 in 14 chance of dying from a vessel strike before its first birthday.