Snow Cone, the endangered right whale mom that is entangled in fishing gear, has been spotted emaciated and covered in lice.
The whale was first seen by marine biologists in March 2021, entangled in huge amounts of fishing gear. The long fishing rope is stuck under her jaw and likely prevents her from eating and migrating properly. Rescuers managed to remove hundreds of feet from the rope to increase her chance of survival, but to completely free her has proved challenging.
She made headlines in December 2021 when she was spotted with a “miracle” newborn calf. Due to the severity of her entanglement, researchers thought it incredibly unlikely that she could give birth, let alone nurse.
The endangered whale was seen swimming south of Nantucket, Massachusetts, on September 22 by scientists at the New England Aquarium.
Snow Cone was carrying even more fishing gear with her this time, while still having the previous ropes around with her.
Right whales are approaching extinction. According to NOAA, there are less than 350 individuals remaining, and there may be fewer than 100 breeding females. One of the major threats facing the species is getting entangled in commercial fishing gear.
Researchers were shocked at the decline in the whale’s health, the aquarium said in a press release. The whale’s health has declined dramatically since she was last seen in July 2022.
It appears the fishing rope has drained her, preventing her from swimming efficiently. She was spotted covered in orange cyamides, also known as whale lice. According to the New England Aquarium, this is an indicator that her swimming speeds are slowing down. She was also covered in marks, suggesting the fishing gear is causing severe injury.
Research Assistant Sharon Hsu, who was part of the team documenting the sighting, said 18 months ago that there had been hope of freeing the whale, but after this recent sighting, there is “no longer hope for her survival.”
“She was moving so slowly, she couldn’t dive, she just sank. She’s suffering,” Hsu said.
After the sighting, the scientists contacted the Center for Coastal Studies to initiate disentanglement efforts, but due to the conditions, and how far away she was swimming, they could not undertake action immediately.
Heather Pettis, a research scientist at the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, said in the press release: “We are watching one of the few remaining reproductive North Atlantic right whale females slowly die.
“The deterioration and suffering that she has experienced is inexcusable. While horrific in and of itself, Snow Cone is not alone in her experience. More than 86% of right whales have experienced at least one and some individuals as many as eight entanglements, and the severity of these events has increased over time,” Pettis said. “The survival of this species demands that swift and broad actions be taken to prevent these events throughout their range.”