Rescuers responded to a North Atlantic right whale swimming near Jekyll Island, Ga., dragging nearly 375 feet of synthetic rope from its mouth.
On Jan. 20, four trained responders wearing helmets and working from a boat no larger than the whale itself, successfully freed the whale of most of that rope.
Aerial responders from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute (CMARI) reported that a small section of the rope, lodged in the whale’s mouth, could not be removed. What remains should not prove lethal for the 15 year-old whale, known to scientists as whale #3812 “Nimbus.” But his species, as a whole, is swimming in a sea of deadly threats.
Nimbus is the second whale to show up dragging fishing gear in Southeastern waters. The first, a whale known as #4904, was spotted entangled off the coast of Salvo, N.C., on Jan. 8. No rescue was attempted and no one has seen the whale since. Entanglement in fishing rope is the leading cause of death for this critically endangered species. Vessel strikes follow, a close second.
These facts are crucial knowledge for anyone who spends time in South Carolina’s waters, especially during winter, when right whales regularly visit during the species’ calving season.
Well-established ocean advocacy groups are doing their part to educate the public about the problems facing the region’s whales. On Jan. 24, the South Carolina Aquarium hosted three marine mammal experts who spoke to over 150 attendees about the urgent problems faced by North Atlantic right whales. Fewer than 340 individuals of the species remain.
Nimbus likely dragged the rope to Georgia’s waters from hundreds of miles away. He was last spotted on Aug. 8 feeding on rich clouds of copepods in Canada’s waters, completely free of any rope. CMARI said in a statement that the removed rope was “not consistent with any Southeast U.S. commercial fisheries.”
Law enforcement agents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working to identify where the rope came from. NOAA has tried to reduce entanglement, without much success. A court ruled in 2022 that the federal government was in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act for failing to mitigate the impact of commercial fisheries on right whales, a federally listed species.
Causes of death
Melanie White, a research biologist for CMARI who spoke at the aquarium event, said that 12 calves, 11 calving mothers and 21 other adults have been spotted since early December in a thin stretch of ocean from North Carolina to northern Florida. Five have been spotted off the coast of South Carolina.
One calf was spotted in Morehead City, N.C., without its mother and died soon after. The Post and Courier reported on its death and the way recent whale deaths have been used by some anti-wind energy groups to seed confusion about what’s killing large whales up and down the East Coast.
“The two biggest threats right now are vessel strikes and entanglement,” said Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney lawyer from the Southern Environmental Law Center. She spoke to a group of mostly older attendees. Four young children sat crossed-legged in front of a the two-story tall aquarium tank next to the stage. A giant blowfish stared back at them.
“We can’t afford to lose just one whale,” Weaver said. “There is no room for error.”
On the same day that Nimbus swam free from the deadly rope, NOAA rejected an emergency petition filed by ocean advocacy groups that demanded the U.S. government to greatly expand already-existing speed restrictions on vessels in South Carolina, North Carolina and other parts of the Southeast to reduce the likelihood of collisions, especially for smaller boats.
A longtime lamented loophole within the U.S. government’s policies for protecting right whales is that boats under 65 feet in length are largely exempt from speed restrictions. A gruesome collision between a 54-foot sport fishing boat and a right whale calf in 2021 made clear that even small boats can kill.
White, who leads aerial surveys over South Carolina’s waters, said researchers regularly spot whales swimming 7 to 20 miles off the coast. That’s their “hot spot” in the Carolinas. That also means that few South Carolinians get an opportunity to see the whales up close, which may feed a false notion that North Atlantic right whales are not part of the state’s ecosystem and economy.
“We are an aquarium that exhibits animals from the mountains to the sea, all native to South Carolina … Even if we don’t have (right whales) close to shore, even if we don’t have them on exhibit, people are still interested in them,” said Sara McDonald, director of conservation for the South Carolina Aquarium. “It’s an opportunity to educate people that they’re there and how to behave if you do see them.”
Battling bad information
There’s another reason why the aquarium is taking up right whale education: public trust.
The aquarium recently participated in a national study to better understand the sentiments people have about their local zoos, museums and aquariums. The 2022 study found that 66 percent of U.S. adults view the South Carolina aquarium to be “a highly credible source of information.”
Trust in the Charleston-based aquarium actually surpasses trust in daily newspapers, which was 60 percent. Federal agencies, like NOAA, ranked last on the list, with only 51 percent of people agreeing that they were “highly credible” when it came to sourcing information.
“We’re trying to be a trusted source,” McDonald said. “I think everyone is vulnerable to bad information.”
Bad information can come in many forms: rumors, misleading news reports and intentionally false statements made in bad faith. Earlier this month a viral story started a chain reaction that spread both misleading and outright false information about Atlantic whales dying en masse. Baseless claims tied the deaths to ongoing development of off-shore wind energy.
Eight whales have washed up dead on the beaches of New York and New Jersey this winter. None of them were North Atlantic right whales. But some of the beached whales, most of them humpback whales, are related to right whales. They share many of the same slow-swimming, filter-feeding behaviors that make so many baleen whales susceptible to ship strikes.
Some of the pro-whale voices that have landed in the media and blame wind energy for their deaths are bankrolled by far-right conservative think tanks. One group, Save LBI, has a pending lawsuit against the federal government to cease off shore wind near N.J.’s water; its legal fees are paid for by a Delaware-based conservative group, the Caesar Rodney Institute.
NOAA said there is no evidence that wind energy development in New York’s and New Jersey’s waters killed these whales. Federal agencies continue to stress that the four leading causes of whale death are vessel strikes, fishing, plastic pollution and climate change. At least two of the whales had injuries typical of a boat strike.
The media seem to be contributing this rising sea of misinformation. On NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” reporter Nancy Solomon said “a lot of the (news) coverage equated what these few anti-wind groups are saying with the vast majority of marine and environmental science groups. It’s an example of … bothsideism, which is giving equal weight to a marginal or unproven idea.”
And, yet, major news outlets continue to amplify the unproven claims of anti-wind groups that wind power development is killing large whales.
On Jan. 30, the most recent dead whale was reported beached in Lido Beach, N.Y. Social media from a news outlet linked to a group speculating about the contributing role of wind power. Authorities have not yet performed an autopsy to determine what killed the whale that currently lies belly up at the high tide mark on Lido Beach. That information is still not known.
Experts at the aquarium event didn’t address misinformation directly. They did stress the importance of educating boaters that it is the vessels that do real harm to moms and calves locally. Boaters should stay away.
“It’s illegal to be within 500 yards of these whales,” White said. All three experts — White, Weaver and Lauren Rust of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network — explained the federal policies in place that make its unlawful to touch, approach or harass any marine mammal.
Calving season ends around April 15. After that, North Atlantic right whales will start their migration northward to their feeding grounds in New England and Canada. The aquarium said it will continue to serve as a local resource to anyone interested in knowing the facts about this animal, no matter the season.
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